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What is a Revocable Living Trust?
Much has been written regarding the use of "living trusts" (also known as a "revocable trust," "inter vivos trust," or “loving trust”) as a solution for a wide variety of problems associated with estate planning that wills cannot address. Some attorneys regularly recommend the use of such trusts, while others believe that their value has been somewhat overstated. The choice of a living trust should be made after consideration of a number of factors.
The term "living trust" is generally used to describe a trust that you create during your lifetime. A living trust can help you manage your assets or protect you should you become ill, disabled or simply challenged by the symptoms of aging. Most living trusts are written to permit you to revoke or amend them whenever you wish to do so. These trusts do not help you avoid estate tax because your power to revoke or amend them causes them to continue to be includable in your estate. These trusts do help you avoid probate, which may not always be necessary depending on the cost and complexity of probate in your estate.
You also can create an "irrevocable" living trust, but this type of trust may not be revoked or changed, and such a trust is almost exclusively done to produce certain tax or asset protection results, which are beyond the scope of this summary.
A "living trust" is legally in existence during your lifetime, has a trustee who currently serves, and owns property which (generally) you have transferred to it during your lifetime. While you are living, the trustee (who may be you, although a co-trustee might also be named along with you) is generally responsible for managing the property as you direct for your benefit. Upon your death, the trustee is generally directed to either distribute the trust property to your beneficiaries, or to continue to hold it and manage it for the benefit of your beneficiaries. Like a will, a living trust can provide for the distribution of property upon your death. Unlike a will, it can also (a) provide you with a vehicle for managing your property during your lifetime, and (b) authorize the trustee to manage the property and use it for your benefit (and your family) if you should become incapacitated, thereby avoiding the appointment of a guardian for that purpose.
What Happens if You Die Without A Will?
If you die intestate (without a will), your state's laws of descent and distribution will determine who receives your property by default. These laws vary from state to state, but typically the distribution would be to your spouse and children, or if none, to other family members. A state's plan often reflects the legislature's guess as to how most people would dispose of their estates and builds in protections for certain beneficiaries, particularly minor children. That plan may or may not reflect your actual wishes, and some of the built-in protections may not be necessary in a harmonious family setting. A will allows you to alter the state's default plan to suit your personal preferences. It also permits you to exercise control over a myriad of personal decisions that broad and general state default provisions cannot address.
What Does a Will Do?
A will provides for the distribution of certain property owned by you at the time of your death, and generally you may dispose of such property in any manner you choose. Your right to dispose of property as you choose, however, may be subject to forced heirship laws of most states that prevent you from disinheriting a spouse and, in some cases, children. For example, many states have spousal rights of election laws that permit a spouse to claim a certain interest in your estate regardless of what your will (or other documents addressing the disposition of your property) provides. Your will does not govern the disposition of your property that is controlled by beneficiary designations or by titling and so passes outside your probate estate. Such assets include property titled in joint names with rights of survivorship, payable on death accounts, life insurance, retirement plans and accounts, and employee death benefits. These assets pass automatically at death to another person, and your Will is not applicable to them unless they are payable to your estate by the terms of the beneficiary designations for them. Your probate estate consists only of the assets subject to your will, or to a state’s intestacy laws if you have no will, and over which the probate court (in some jurisdictions referred to as surrogate’s or orphan’s court) may have authority. This is why reviewing beneficiary designations, in addition to preparing a will, is a critical part of the estate planning process. It is important to note that whether property is part of your probate estate has nothing to do with whether property is part of your taxable estate for estate tax purposes.
Wills can be of various degrees of complexity and can be utilized to achieve a wide range of family and tax objectives. If a will provides for the outright distribution of assets, it is sometimes characterized as a simple will. If the will creates one or more trusts upon your death, the will is often called a testamentary trust will. Alternatively, the will may leave probate assets to a preexisting inter vivos trust (created during your lifetime), in which case the will is called a pour over will. Such preexisting inter vivos trusts are often referred to as revocable living trusts. The use of such trusts or those created by a will generally is to ensure continued property management, divorce and creditor protection for the surviving family members, protection of an heir from his or her own irresponsibility, provisions for charities, or minimization of taxes.
Aside from providing for the intended disposition of your property upon your death, a number of other important objectives may be accomplished in your will.
You may designate a guardian for your minor child or children if you are the surviving parent and thereby minimize court involvement in the care of your child. Also, by the judicious use of a trust and the appointment of a trustee to manage property funding that trust for the support of your children, you may eliminate the need for bonds (money posted to secure a trustee’s properly carrying out the trustee’s responsibilities) as well as avoid supervision by the court of the minor children’s inherited assets.
You may designate an executor (personal representative) of your estate in your will, and eliminate their need for a bond. In some states, the designation of an independent executor, or the waiver of otherwise applicable state statutes, will eliminate the need for court supervision of the settlement of your estate.
You may choose to provide for persons whom the state’s intestacy laws would not otherwise benefit, such as stepchildren, godchildren, friends or charities.
If you are acting as the custodian of assets of a child or grandchild under the Uniform Gift (or Transfers) to Minors Act (often referred to by their acronyms, UGMA or UTMA), you may designate your successor custodian and avoid the expense of a court appointment.
What Does a Will Not Do?
A will does not govern the transfer of certain types of assets, called non-probate property, which by operation of law (title) or contract (such as a beneficiary designation) pass to someone other than your estate on your death. For example, real estate and other assets owned with rights of survivorship pass automatically to the surviving owner. Likewise, an IRA or insurance policy payable to a named beneficiary passes to that named beneficiary regardless of your will.
How Do I Execute (sign) a Will?
Wills must be signed in the presence of witnesses and certain formalities must be followed or the will may be invalid. In many states, a will that is formally executed in front of witnesses with all signatures notarized is deemed to be “self-proving” and may be admitted to probate without the testimony of witnesses or other additional proof. Even if a will is ultimately held to be valid in spite of errors in execution, addressing such a challenge may be costly and difficult. A potential challenge is best addressed by executing the will properly in the first instance. A later amendment to a will is called a codicil and must be signed with the same formalities. Be cautious in using a codicil because, if there are ambiguities between its provisions and the prior will it amends, problems can ensue. In some states, the will may refer to a memorandum that distributes certain items of tangible personal property, such as furniture, jewelry, and automobiles, which may be changed from time to time without the formalities of a will. Even if such a memorandum is permitted in your state, proceed with caution. This type of separate document can create potential confusion or challenges if it is inconsistent with the terms of the will or prepared in a haphazard manner.
Jointly Owned Property
If you own property with another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship, that is, not as tenants in common, the property will pass directly to the remaining joint tenant upon your death and will not be a part of your probate estate governed by your will (or the state’s laws of intestacy if you have no will). It is important to note that whether property is part of your probate estate has nothing to do with whether property is part of your taxable estate for estate tax purposes.
Frequently, people (particularly in older age) will title bank accounts or securities in the names of themselves and one or more children or trusted friends as joint tenants with right of survivorship. This is sometimes done as a matter of convenience to give the joint tenant access to accounts to pay bills. It is important to realize that the ownership of property in this fashion often leads to unexpected or unwanted results. Disputes, including litigation, are common between the estate of the original owner and the surviving joint tenant as to whether the survivor's name was added as a matter of convenience or management or whether a gift was intended. The planning built into a well-drawn will may be partially or completely thwarted by an inadvertently created joint tenancy that passes property to a beneficiary by operation of law, rather than under the terms of the will. In some instances, a power of attorney document giving the trusted person the power to act on your behalf as your agent with regard to the account in order to pay bills will achieve your intended goal without disrupting your intended plans regarding to whom the account will ultimately pass.
Many of these problems also are applicable to institutional revocable trusts and "pay on death" forms of ownership of bank, broker, and mutual fund accounts and savings bonds. Effective planning requires knowledge of the consequences of each property interest and technique.
In many instances, consumers prepare wills believing that the will governs who will inherit their assets when in fact, the title (ownership) of various accounts or real property, for example, as joint tenants, or beneficiary designations for IRAs, life insurance and certain other assets control the distribution of most or even all assets. This is why merely addressing your will is rarely sufficient to accomplish your goals.
Trusts are legal arrangements that can provide incredible flexibility for the ownership of certain assets, thereby enabling you and your heirs to achieve a number of significant personal goals that cannot be achieved otherwise. The term trust describes the holding of property by a trustee, which may be one or more persons or a corporate trust company or bank, in accordance with the provisions of a contract, the written trust instrument, for the benefit of one or more persons called beneficiaries. The trustee is the legal owner of the trust property, and the beneficiaries are the equitable owners of the trust property. A person may be both a trustee and a beneficiary of the same trust.
If you create a trust, you are described as the trust's grantor or settlor. A trust created by a will is called a testamentary trust, and the trust provisions for such a trust are contained in your will. A trust created during your lifetime is called a living trust or an inter vivos trust, and the trust provisions are contained in the trust agreement or declaration. The provisions of a living trust or inter vivos trust (rather than your will or state law default rules) usually will determine what happens to the property in the trust upon your death.
A trust created during lifetime may be revocable, which means it may be revoked or changed by the settlor, or irrevocable, which means it cannot be revoked or changed by the settlor. Either type of trust may be designed to accomplish the purposes of property management, assistance to the settlor in the event of physical or mental incapacity, and disposition of property after the death of the settlor of the trust with the least involvement possible by the probate (surrogate or orphan’s) court.
Trusts are not only for the wealthy. Many young parents with limited assets choose to create trusts either during life or in their wills for the benefit of their children in case both parents die before all their children have reached an age deemed by the parents to indicate sufficient maturity to handle property (which often is older than the age of majority under state law). Trusts permits the trust assets to be held as a single undivided fund to be used for the support and education of minor children according to their respective needs, with eventual division of the trust among the children when the youngest has reached a specified age. This type of arrangement has an obvious advantage over an inflexible division of property among children of different ages without regard to their level of maturity or individual needs at the time of such distribution.
For More Information, See Planning With Retirement Benefits: General Information for Plan Participants. This is a brochure published by the ABA.
Annuities and Retirement Benefits
You may be entitled to receive some type of retirement benefit under an employee benefit plan offered by your employer or have an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or a Roth-IRA. Typically, a deferred compensation or retirement benefit plan provides for the payment of certain benefits to beneficiaries designated by the employee in the event of the employee's death before retirement age. After retirement, the employee may elect a benefit option that will continue payments after his or her death to one or more of the designated beneficiaries. It is sometimes advantageous to have these plan assets paid to trusts, but naming a trust as the beneficiary of such plan assets raises a number of complex income tax, estate planning and other issues. Naming the surviving spouse as the beneficiary of certain retirement plans and spousal annuities is mandated by law and may be waived only with his or her properly signed consent. Competent estate planning counsel is crucial.
If you are entitled to start receiving retirement benefits during your lifetime, the various payment options will be treated differently for income tax purposes. You should seek competent advice as to the payment options available under your retirement plan and the tax consequences of each.
If you own life insurance on your own life, you may either
(a) designate one or more beneficiaries to receive the insurance proceeds upon your death, or
(b) make the proceeds payable to your probate estate or to a trust created by you during your lifetime or by your will.
If insurance proceeds are payable to your estate, they will be distributed as part of your general estate in accordance with the terms of your will or, if you die without a will, according to the applicable state laws of intestate succession. If the proceeds are payable to a trust, they will be held and distributed in the same manner as the other trust assets and may be protected from creditors' claims. Insurance proceeds that are payable directly to a minor child generally will necessitate the court appointment of a legal guardian or conservator. This can be avoided by naming a trust or custodial account under the state transfers-to-minors law as the beneficiary. Trusts often are used for insurance proceeds, even if the trust beneficiary is not a minor, to protect the assets from a creditors, divorce, to provide income tax planning and distribution flexibility, and to provide centralized or professional management of the proceeds.
Insurance plays an important role in financial, retirement and estate planning and should be coordinated with all other aspects of your estate plan. The laws pertaining to the taxability of insurance proceeds are complex, so it is important that all matters pertaining to life insurance be carefully reviewed with your attorney and insurance advisor. For example, your insurance coverage should be reviewed at least every two or three years to assure that the policy is performing as intended, the insurance company remains in solid financial position, and that the ownership of the policy and its beneficiary designations still comport with your wishes.
Power of Attorney
An important part of lifetime planning is the power of attorney. A power of attorney is accepted in all states, but the rules and requirements differ from state to state. A power of attorney gives one or more persons the power to act on your behalf as your agent. The power may be limited to a particular activity, such as closing the sale of your home, or be general in its application. The power may give temporary or permanent authority to act on your behalf. The power may take effect immediately, or only upon the occurrence of a future event, usually a determination that you are unable to act for yourself due to mental or physical disability. The latter is called a "springing" power of attorney. A power of attorney may be revoked, but most states require written notice of revocation to the person named to act for you.
The person named in a power of attorney to act on your behalf is commonly referred to as your "agent" or "attorney-in-fact." With a valid power of attorney, your agent can take any action permitted in the document. Often your agent must present the actual document to invoke the power. For example, if another person is acting on your behalf to sell an automobile, the motor vehicles department generally will require that the power of attorney be presented before your agent's authority to sign the title will be honored. Similarly, an agent who signs documents to buy or sell real property on your behalf must present the power of attorney to the title company. Similarly, the agent has to present the power of attorney to a broker or banker to effect the sale of securities or opening and closing bank accounts. However, your agent generally should not need to present the power of attorney when signing checks for you.
Why would anyone give such sweeping authority to another person? One answer is convenience. If you are buying or selling assets and do not wish to appear in person to close the transaction, you may take advantage of a power of attorney. Another important reason to use power of attorney is to prepare for situations when you may not be able to act on your own behalf due to absence or incapacity. Such a disability may be temporary, for example, due to travel, accident, or illness, or it may be permanent.
If you do not have a power of attorney and become unable to manage your personal or business affairs, it may become necessary for a court to appoint one or more people to act for you. People appointed in this manner are referred to as guardians, conservators, or committees, depending upon your local state law. If a court proceeding, sometimes known as intervention, is needed, you may not have the ability to choose the person who will act for you. Few people want to be subject to a public proceeding in this manner so being proactive to create the appropriate document to avoid this is important. A power of attorney allows you to choose who will act for you and defines his or her authority and its limits, if any. In some instances, greater security against having a guardianship imposed on you may be achieved by you also creating a revocable living trust.
Who Should Be Your Agent?
You may wish to choose a family member to act on your behalf. Many people name their spouses or one or more children. In naming more than one person to act as agent at the same time, be alert to the possibility that all may not be available to act when needed, or they may not agree. The designation of co-agents should indicate whether you wish to have the majority act in the absence of full availability and agreement. Regardless of whether you name co-agents, you should always name one or more successor agents to address the possibility that the person you name as agent may be unavailable or unable to act when the time comes.
There are no special qualifications necessary for someone to act as an attorney-in-fact except that the person must not be a minor or otherwise incapacitated. The best choice is someone you trust. Integrity, not financial acumen, is often the most important trait of a potential agent.
How The Agent Should Sign?
Assume Michael Douglas appoints his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, as his agent in a written power of attorney. Catherine, as agent, must sign as follows: Michael Douglas, by Catherine Zeta-Jones under POA or Catherine Zeta-Jones, attorney-in-fact for Michael Douglas. If you are ever called upon to take action as someone’s agent, you should consult with an attorney about actions you can and cannot take and whether there are any precautionary steps you should take to minimize the likelihood of someone challenging your actions. This is especially important if you take actions that directly or indirectly benefit you personally.
What Kinds of Powers Should I Give My Agent?
In addition to managing your day-to-day financial affairs, your attorney-in-fact can take steps to implement your estate plan. Although an agent cannot revise your will on your behalf, some jurisdictions permit an attorney-in-fact to create or amend trusts for you during your lifetime, or to transfer your assets to trusts you created. Even without amending your will or creating trusts, an agent can affect the outcome of how your assets are distributed by changing the ownership (title) to assets. It is prudent to include in the power of attorney a clear statement of whether you wish your agent to have these powers.
Gifts are an important tool for many estate plans, and your attorney-in-fact can make gifts on your behalf, subject to guidelines that you set forth in your power of attorney. For example, you may wish to permit your attorney-in-fact to make "annual exclusion" gifts (up to $14,000 in value per recipient per year in 2013) on your behalf to your children and grandchildren. It is important that the lawyer who prepares your power of attorney draft the document in a way that does not expose your attorney-in-fact to unintended estate tax consequences. While some states permit attorneys-in-fact to make gifts as a matter of statute, others require explicit authorization in the power of attorney. If you have older documents you should review them with your attorney. Because of the high estate tax exemption ($5 million inflation adjusted) many people who had given agents the right to make gifts may no longer wish to include this power. Others, however, in order to empower their agent to minimize state estate tax might continue or add such a power. Finally, there may be reasons not to limit the gifts your attorney-in-fact may make to annual exclusion gifts in order to facilitate Medicaid planning or to minimize or avoid state estate tax beyond what annual exclusion gifts alone might permit.
In addition to the power of your agent to make gifts on your behalf, many powers of your attorney-in-fact are governed by state law. Generally, the law of the state in which you reside at the time you sign a power of attorney will govern the powers and actions of your agent under that document. If you own real estate, such as a vacation home, or valuable personal property, such as collectibles, in a second state, you should check with an attorney to make sure that your power of attorney properly covers such property.
What if I move?
Generally, a power of attorney that is valid when you sign it will remain valid even if you change your state of residence. Although it should not be necessary to sign a new power of attorney merely because you have moved to a new state, it is a good idea to take the opportunity to update your power of attorney. The update ideally should be part of a review and update of your overall estate plan to be sure that nuances of the new state law (and any other changes in circumstances that have occurred since your existing documents were signed) are addressed.
Will my Power of Attorney expire?
Some states used to require the renewal of a power of attorney for continuing validity. Today, most states permit a "durable" power of attorney that remains valid once signed until you die or revoke the document. You should periodically meet with your lawyer, however, to revisit your power of attorney and consider whether your choice of agent still meets your needs and learn whether developments in state law affect your power of attorney. Some powers of attorney expressly include termination dates to minimize the risk of former friends or spouses continuing to serve as agents. It is vital that you review the continued effectiveness of your documents periodically.
Health Care Directives
With the increasing ability of medical science to sustain our lives, people are living much longer than ever before. Unfortunately, as we grow older, or if we experience health challenges, we may find ourselves in a position in which decisions need to be made as to how we wish to be treated in a variety of medical situations. This is especially true at the end of our lives, but can be true at any time as a result of the impact of an accident, injury, or illness. If we are in a condition such that we no longer can express our preferences about treatment, decisions will be made for us by others if we have not planned for our own treatment in advance. Advance health care directives allow us to deal with these situations. Without such directives, our families may find it necessary to obtain court orders to deal with our medical situations.
State laws vary concerning the appropriate documents to cover these situations. All fifty states permit you to express your wishes as to medical treatment in terminal illness or injury situations, and to appoint someone to communicate for you in the event you cannot communicate for yourself. Depending on the state, these documents are known as "living wills," "medical directives," "health care proxies," or "advance health care directives." Some states have a standardized or statutory form, while other states allow you to draft your own document. But even if you use a standard or statutory form, you should review it to be sure that it comports with your personal wishes. Never sign a document presented to you as standard unless you have read and understood it and confirmed that it does in fact reflect your desires.
A living will is your written expression of how you want to be treated in certain medical circumstances. Depending on state law, this document may permit you to express whether you wish to be given life-sustaining treatments in the event you are terminally ill or injured, to decide in advance whether you wish to be provided food and water via intravenous devices ("tube feeding"), and to give other medical directions that impact your care, including the end of life. "Life-sustaining treatment" means the use of available medical machinery and techniques, such as heart-lung machines, ventilators, and other medical equipment and techniques that may sustain and possibly extend your life, but which may not by themselves cure your condition. Be very careful signing any such document without reviewing the implications to you. For example, some of the commonly used clauses in living wills may forbid the provision of assisted breathing, including devices you presently may be using if, for example, you are living with COPD. Most important, many of the provisions of such a document have profound religious and philosophical implications. Be certain that whatever you sign is consistent with your beliefs and wishes. In addition to terminal illness or injury situations, most states also permit you to express your preferences as to treatment using life-sustaining equipment or tube feeding for medical conditions that leave you permanently unconscious and without detectable brain activity.
A living will applies in situations in which the decision to use such treatments may prolong your life for a limited period of time and not obtaining such treatment would result in your death. Having a living will does not mean that medical professionals would deny you pain medications and other treatments that would relieve pain or otherwise make you more comfortable. Living wills do not determine your medical treatment in situations that do not affect your continued life, such as routine medical treatment and non life-threatening medical conditions. Most states permit you to include other medical directions that you wish your physicians to be aware of regarding the types of treatment you do or do not wish to receive. In all states the determination as to whether you are in such a medical condition is determined by medical professionals, usually your attending physician and at least one other medical doctor who has examined you or reviewed your medical situation.
Health Care Proxy
A "health care proxy," sometimes called a "health care surrogate" or "durable medical power of attorney," is a durable power of attorney specifically designed to cover medical treatment. You appoint a person and grant to him or her the authority to make medical decisions for you in the event you are unable to express your preferences about medical treatment. Most commonly, this situation occurs either because you are unconscious or because your mental state is such that you do not have the legal capacity to make your own decisions. As with living wills, depending on your state of residence, the health care proxy may be a standard or statutory form or it may be may be drafted specifically for you by your lawyer. Normally, one person (not multiple persons to act at one time) is appointed as your health care proxy. It is quite common, however, for you to appoint one or more alternate persons (successors) in the event your first choice proxy is unavailable. You should confirm prior to appointing someone as your proxy that he or she will in fact be willing and able to carry out your wishes. If your preferred proxy has, for example, a religious view that prevents him or her from carrying out your wishes, you should name someone else. As in the case of a living will, medical professionals will make the initial determination as to whether you have the capacity to make your own medical treatment decisions.
Why Have Health Directives?
Regardless of the name your state gives to these documents, their purpose is to allow you to express your preferences concerning medical treatment in an extreme medical situation when you cannot communicate, including at the end of your life. By expressing such preferences in a written legal document, you are ensuring that your preferences are made known. Physicians prefer these documents because they provide a written expression from you as to your medical care and designate for the physician the person he or she should consult concerning unanswered medical questions. Rather than the physician having to obtain a consensus answer from your family as to your treatment, the physician knows your preferences and knows who you want to provide decisions when you cannot do so. Also, providing such information and designating a health care proxy means that the physician knows whose direction is to be followed in the event your family disagrees as to what medical treatment you would want.
In addition to helping your physician, these documents express your wishes to your family so that they do not have to guess about what you would want. Making your wishes known in advance prevents family members from making hard choices at what likely will be one of the most stressful times in their lives.
Obtaining and Maintaining Living Wills and Health Care Proxies
Your lawyer can provide you with these documents. Generally, these documents require at least two witnesses, who must be adults as defined under your state law. It is the policy of some hospitals and other medical institutions not to permit their employees to witness the signing of such documents. Most states have other restrictions as to who may witness such documents. Generally, the persons who act as witnesses are not permitted to be individuals entitled to any inheritance as a result of your death, either by will or by state law. Often, state law does not permit persons to witness such documents if they are related to you by blood or by marriage or if they are responsible for payment of your medical bills. Some lawyers recommend that these documents be notarized as well as witnessed.
While all states recognize these types of documents, the law varies as to whether a state will recognize a document prepared in another state. It is not necessary to prepare additional documents in case you might vacation in another state. If you spend a considerable amount of time living in more than one state, however, you should consider having such documents prepared in each of the states in which you spend significant periods of time.
Should you change your mind about your health care treatment or end of life decisions or your choice of health care proxy, you can simply destroy the documents you have and create new ones. Once you have a living will, health care proxy, or advance health care directive, you should keep it among your important papers. Make sure a responsible adult, such as the named health care proxy, knows where you keep these documents. If you have a regular physician who keeps your medical records, you should provide a copy of the document to him or her for your medical records. In the event you are admitted to a hospital, you should take this document with you at the time you are admitted and permit the hospital to place a copy of it into your medical file. It is also a good idea to discuss the decisions you have made in your document with family members so that they may better know and understand your wishes concerning these matters.
Organ and Tissue Donation
In many states you can include in your advance directive your preference to become an organ or tissue donor at the time of death. State law varies, and you should check with your attorney. Even if your state is one in which your driver's license contains an organ or tissue donor statement, you need to let your health care proxy, your family, and your physician know your desire to become a donor. In some states you also need to be registered as an organ and tissue donor. Given the long list of people who die each year waiting for organ donations, donating your organs and tissue can be a tremendous help to those in need. Be certain to consider religious and other issues that may impact your decision to become a donor.
Communication is the Key
Many people prefer to keep their legal documents private. With end of life issues, however, communicating your wishes is essential. An advance health care directive is the first step in this process. But you also need to discuss your preferences with others. Take the time to discuss these issues with the person you appoint as your health care proxy. Talk to your physician. Make sure your family knows how you feel about end of life issues. The more these individuals know, the easier it will be for them to fulfill your wishes. While the conversations are no doubt difficult, they will relieve those you appoint of tremendous emotional burdens by your having personally explained your desires.
What is Probate?
Probate is the formal legal process that gives recognition to a will and appoints the executor or personal representative who will administer the estate and distribute assets to the intended beneficiaries. The laws of each state vary, so it is a good idea to consult an attorney to determine whether a probate proceeding is necessary, whether the fiduciary must be bonded (a requirement that is often waived in the will) and what reports must be prepared. Most probate proceedings are neither expensive nor prolonged, which is contrary to the claims of many vendors selling living trust and other products.
The basic job of administration and accounting for assets must be done whether the estate is handled by an executor in probate or whether probate is avoided because all assets were transferred to a living trust during lifetime or jointly owned. Many states have simplified or streamlined their probate processes over the years. In such states, there is now less reason to use probate avoidance techniques unless there are other valid reasons to continue to minimize probate. In planning your estate, more important than minimizing probate is minimizing the real issues that can make probate difficult, such as lawsuits by heirs
Should You Avoid Probate?
The living trust is often marketed as a vehicle that allows you to "avoid probate" upon your death. Probate is the court-supervised process of administering your estate and transferring your property at death pursuant to the terms of your will. Probate is rarely the calamity naysayers claim. In addition, many types of property routinely pass outside of the probate process, even without the cost of establishing a living trust. Such property includes life insurance or retirement plan proceeds, which pass to a named beneficiary by designation rather than pursuant to your will, and real estate or bank or brokerage accounts held in joint names with right of survivorship.
While it is true that the property passing under the terms of a living trust upon your death will "avoid probate," it should be noted that there may or may not be actual value in that result. Probate laws are different in every state. In some states there are statutorily mandated court or attorney fees while in others those fees may be minimal. Many states have expedited or simplified court proceedings that are efficient and inexpensive for small or simple estates. A properly drafted will in many states can eliminate some of the steps otherwise required in the probate proceedings. In addition, much of the delay and red tape customarily associated with probate is a result of tax laws and tax filing requirements, which cannot be eliminated through a living trust and the avoidance of probate. Finally, a living trust can almost never totally avoid probate, and a simple will is needed to "pour over" to the trust any property that has not been transferred to the trust during your lifetime.
Property that passes at death through a revocable living trust must be transferred to the trust, administered by a trustee who may or may not charge fees, and then transferred out of the trust to the beneficiaries. There may be other costs, such as real estate transfer taxes or fees, depending upon the jurisdiction. The costs associated with these steps and the costs associated with tax filings are often ignored by living trust marketers. A comparison of the costs of probate and those of a living trust should be made on a case by case basis.
Living trusts, in fact, have great value as part of estate planning, but not necessarily to avoid probate. A living trust, if properly prepared and administered, can be a very effective tool to manage assets in the event of illness, disability or the effects of aging. In light of the aging population, the use of living trusts to minimize the risk of elder financial abuse and address similar issues, should be an important consideration in an estate plan.
What Do I Do Now?
After an individual's death, his or her assets will be gathered, business affairs settled, debts paid, necessary tax returns filed, and assets distributed as the deceased individual (generally referred to as the "decedent") directed. These activities generally will be conducted on behalf of the decedent by a person acting in a fiduciary capacity, either as executor (in some states called a personal representative) or as trustee, depending upon how the decedent held his or her property.
As a first step, it is helpful to know the meaning of a few common terms:
Fiduciary - An individual or bank or trust company that acts for the benefit of another. Trustees, executors, and personal representatives are all fiduciaries.
Grantor - (Also called "settlor" or "trustor") An individual who transfers property to a trustee to hold or own subject to the terms of the trust agreement setting forth your wishes. For income tax purposes the same term is used to mean the person who is taxed on the income from the trust. Confusing, but different concepts.
Testator - A person who has made a valid will (a woman is sometimes called a "testatrix").
Beneficiary - A person for whose benefit a will or trust was made; the person who is to receive property, either outright or in trust, now or later.
Trustee - An individual or bank or trust company that holds legal title to property for the benefit of another and acts according to the terms of the trust. This can be confusing in that you can sometimes be both a trustee and a beneficiary of the same lifetime (inter-vivos) trust you established or a trust established by someone else for you at their death (testamentary trust).
Executor - (Also called "personal representative;” a woman is sometimes called an "executrix"). An individual or bank or trust company that settles the estate of a testator according to the terms of the will, or if there is no will in accordance with the laws of the decedent’s estate (intestacy), although a person acting in intestacy may be called by a different name, such as administrator.
Principal and Income - Respectively, the property or capital of an estate or trust and the returns from the property, such as interest, dividends, rents, etc. In some cases, gain resulting from appreciation in value may also be income.
Other defined terms may be found in our Glossary.
As a general rule, the administration of an estate or trust after an individual has died requires the fiduciary to address certain routine issues and follow several standard steps to distribute the decedent's assets in accordance with his or her wishes. These guidelines focus on activities that occur in an estate or trust immediately after the individual has died.
Understanding the Will
It is very important to read and understand the will or trust so that you will know who the beneficiaries are, what they are to receive and when, and who, if any, your co-fiduciaries are.
Does the will give everything outright, or does it create new trusts that may continue for several years? Does a trust mandate certain distributions ("All income earned each year is to be paid to my wife, Nancy") or does it leave this to the trustee's discretion ("My trustee shall distribute such income as she believes is necessary for the education and support of my son, Alan, until he reaches age 25")? The document often imparts important directions to the fiduciary, such as which assets should be used to pay taxes and expenses. The document will usually list the fiduciary's powers in some detail.
Most fiduciaries retain an attorney who specializes in the area of trusts and estates to assist them in performing their duties properly. An attorney's advice is very helpful in ensuring that you understand what the will or trust and applicable state law provide. For example, at an initial meeting it is common for the attorney to review step by step many of the key provisions of the will or trust (or both) so that you will understand your role. Be mindful that if you accept the appointment to serve as an executor or trustee, you will be held responsible for understanding and implementing the terms of the trust or will.
Managing Estate Assets
It is the fiduciary's responsibility to take control of (marshal) all assets comprising an estate or trust. Especially when a fiduciary assumes office at the grantor's or testator's death, it is crucial to secure and value all assets as soon as possible. Some assets, such as brokerage accounts, may be accessed immediately once certain prerequisites are met. Typical prerequisites are an executor obtaining formal authorization, sometimes referred to as Letters Testamentary, from the court and producing a death certificate. Other assets, such as insurance, may have to be applied for by filing a claim. The usual practice is to engage a professional appraiser to value the decedent's tangible property, such as household furniture, automobiles, jewelry, artwork, and collectibles. Depending on the nature and value of the property, this may be a routine activity, but you may need the services of a specialist appraiser if, for example, the decedent had rare or unusual items or was a serious collector. Real estate, whether residential or commercial, and any business interests also must be valued. Besides providing a valuation for assets that may be reported on a court-required inventory or on the state or federal estate tax return, the appraisal can help the fiduciary gauge whether the decedent's insurance coverage on the assets is sufficient. Appropriate insurance should be maintained throughout the fiduciary's tenure. The fiduciary also must value financial assets, including bank and securities accounts. Bear in mind that for federal estate tax returns for estates that do not owe any federal estate tax, certain estimates are permitted. This might lessen the appraisal costs that must be incurred.
Handling Debts and Expenses
It is the fiduciary's duty to determine when bills unpaid at death, and expenses incurred in the administration of the estate, should be paid, and then pay them or notify creditors of temporary delay. In some cases the estate may be harmed if certain bills, such as property or casualty insurance bills or real estate taxes, are not paid promptly. Most states require a written notice to any known or reasonably ascertainable creditors. While most bills will present no problem, it is wise to consult an attorney in unusual circumstances, as the fiduciary can be held personally liable for improperly spending estate or trust assets or for failing to protect the estate assets properly, such as by maintaining adequate insurance coverage.
The fiduciary may be responsible for filing a number of tax returns. These tax returns include the final income tax return for the year of the decedent's death, a gift or generation-skipping tax return for the current year, if needed, and prior years' returns that may be on extension. It is not uncommon for a decedent who was ill for the last year or years of his or her life to have missed filing returns. The only way to be certain is to investigate. In addition, if the value of the estate (whether under a will or trust) before deductions exceeds the amount sheltered by the estate tax exemption amount, which is $5 million inflation adjusted ($5.25 million in 2013), a federal estate tax return will need to be filed. Even if the value of the estate does not exceed the estate tax exemption amount, a federal estate tax return still may need to be filed. Under the concept of portability, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and he or she intends to use any estate tax exemption the deceased spouse did not use, an estate tax return must be filed.
Since the estate or trust is a taxpayer in its own right, a new tax identification number must be obtained and a fiduciary income tax return must be filed for the estate or trust. A tax identification number can be obtained online from the IRS website. You cannot use the decedent’s social security number for the estate or any trusts that exist following the decedent’s death.
It is important to note for income tax planning that the estate or trust and its beneficiaries may not be in the same income tax brackets. Thus, timing of certain distributions can save money for all concerned. Caution also should be exercised because trusts and estates are subject to different rules that can be quite complex and can reach the highest tax rates at very low levels of income. Some tax return preparers and accountants specialize in preparing such fiduciary income tax returns and can be very helpful. They are familiar with the filing deadlines, will be able to determine whether the estate or trust must pay estimated taxes quarterly, and may be able to help you plan distributions or other steps to reduce tax costs.
Most expenses that a fiduciary incurs in the administration of the estate or trust are properly payable from the decedent's assets. These include funeral expenses, appraisal fees, attorney's and accountant's fees, and insurance premiums. Careful records should be kept, and receipts should always be obtained. If any expenses are payable to you or someone related to you, consult with an attorney about any special precautions that should be taken.
Funding the Bequests
Wills and trusts often provide for specific gifts of cash ("I give my niece $50,000 if she survives me") or property ("I give my grandfather clock to my granddaughter, Nina") before the balance of the property, or residue, is distributed. The residue may be distributed outright or in further trust, such as a trust for a surviving spouse or a trust for minor children. Be sure that all debts, taxes, and expenses are paid or provided for before distributing any property to beneficiaries because you may be held personally liable if insufficient assets do not remain to meet estate expenses. Although it is usual to obtain a receipt and refunding agreement from the beneficiary that states that he or she agrees to refund any excess distribution made in error by the fiduciary, as a practical matter it is often difficult to retrieve such funds. In some states, you will need court approval before any distributions may be made. Where distributions are made to ongoing trusts or according to a formula described in the will or trust, it is best to consult an attorney to be sure the funding is completed properly. Tax consequences of a distribution sometimes can be surprising, so careful planning is important.
Trusts are designed to distinguish between income and principal. Many trusts, especially older ones, provide for income to be distributed to one person at one time and principal to be distributed to that same person a different time or to another person. For example, many trusts for a surviving spouse provide that all income must be paid to the spouse, but provide for payments of principal (corpus) to the spouse only in limited circumstances, such as a medical emergency. At the surviving spouse's death, the remaining principal may be paid to the decedent's children, to charity, or to other beneficiaries. Income payments and principal distributions can be made in cash, or at the trustee's discretion, by distributing securities as well as cash. Never make assumptions, as the terms of every will and trust differ greatly. There is no such thing as a “standard” distribution provision.
Unless a fiduciary has financial experience, he or she should seek professional advice regarding the investment of trust assets. In addition to investing for good investment results, the fiduciary should invest within the applicable state’s prudent investor rule that governs the trust or estate and with careful consideration of the terms of the will or trust, which may modify the otherwise applicable state law rules. A skilled investment advisor can help the fiduciary decide how to invest, what assets to sell to produce cash for expenses, taxes or outright gifts of cash, and how to minimize income and capital gains taxes. Simply maintaining the investments that the decedent owned will not be a defense if an heir claims you did not invest wisely or violated the law governing trust investments. In all events, it is important to have a written investment policy statement stating what investment goals are being pursued.
During the period of administration, the fiduciary must provide an annual income tax statement (called a Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who is taxable on any income earned by the trust. The fiduciary also must file an income tax return for the trust annually. The fiduciary can be held personally liable for interest and penalties if the income tax return is not filed and the tax paid by the due date, generally April 15th.
Closing the Estate
Estates may be closed when the executor has paid all debts, expenses, and taxes, has received tax clearances from the IRS and the state, and has distributed all assets on hand. Trusts terminate when an event described in the document, such as the death of a beneficiary, or a date described in the document, such as the date the beneficiary attains a stated age, occurs. The fiduciary is given a reasonable period of time thereafter to make the actual distributions. Some states require a petition to be filed in court before the assets are distributed and the estate or trust closed. When such a formal proceeding is not required, it is nevertheless good practice to require all beneficiaries to sign a document, prepared by an attorney, in which they approve of your actions as fiduciary and acknowledge receipt of assets due them. This document protects the fiduciary from later claims by a beneficiary. These formalities are recommended even when the other heirs are relatives, as that alone is never an assurance that one of them will not have an issue and pursue a legal claim against you. Finally, a final income tax return must be filed and a reserve kept back for any due, but unpaid, taxes or estate expenses.
How do I title (own) bank and other accounts?
Each bank, trust company or investment firm may have its own format, but generally you may use, for a trust, "Alice Carroll, Trustee, Lewis Carroll Trust dated January 19, 1998," or, in a shorthand version, "Alice Carroll, Trustee under agreement dated January 19, 1998." For an estate, you should use "Alice Carroll, Executor, Estate of Lewis Carroll, Deceased."
How do I sign my name in a fiduciary capacity?
An executor signs: "Alice Carroll, Executor (or Personal Representative) of the Estate of Lewis Carroll, Deceased". A trustee signs: "Alice Carroll, Trustee"
Where do I hold the estate or trust assets?
You should open an investment account with a bank, trust company, or brokerage company in the name of the estate or trust. All expenses and disbursements must be made from these accounts, and you should receive regular statements.
How (and how much) do I get paid?
Because being a fiduciary is time-consuming and is often difficult, it is appropriate to be paid for your services. The will or trust may set forth the compensation to which you are entitled. If the document does not, many states either provide a fixed schedule of fees or allow "reasonable" compensation, which usually takes into account the size of the estate, the complexity involved, and the time spent by the fiduciary. Executor's or trustee's fees are taxable compensation to you. Several states do not permit you to pay your own compensation without a court order, so ask your attorney before you write yourself a check. Many fiduciaries in the same family as the decedent are quick to waive fees. Before doing this, however, consult with the attorney for the estate and be certain you understand the full scope of your duties and any ramifications of waiver.
What if a beneficiary complains?
Even professional fiduciaries, such as trust companies, receive complaints from a beneficiary from time to time. The best way to deal with them is to do your best to avoid them in the first place by following the guidelines set forth in these FAQs and consulting with an attorney experienced in estate administration. Many complaints arise because beneficiaries are not kept up to date about the administration of the trust or estate. Frequent communication with beneficiaries is a must. The best approach in all instances is to be proactive by communicating throughout the estate or trust administration process and handling all matters with appropriate formality. If a complaint involves more than routine issues, consult with an attorney who specializes in trust and estate matters.
Can I be sued or be held personally liable?
Your errors or mismanagement of a trust or estate can subject you to personal liability. Common pitfalls include not paying taxes or filing returns on time, improper investment choices (whether too conservative, too speculative, or favoring one beneficiary over another), self-dealing (buying assets for yourself or a family member from the estate or trust, whether at market price), or allowing property or casualty insurance to lapse, resulting in a loss to the estate or trust. Your best protection is to get good professional advice as early as possible in the process, communicate regularly with the beneficiaries, treat everything with appropriate formalities as if you were not a related party (even if you are), and fully document your actions and decisions.
How am I discharged as fiduciary at the end of the administration? What if I want to resign?
Whether you stop acting as a fiduciary because the estate or trust has terminated or you wish to resign before the conclusion of your administration, you must be discharged, either by the local court or by the beneficiaries. In some states, discharge is a formal process that involves the preparation of an accounting. In other states, you can be discharged with the use of a relatively simple document signed by the beneficiaries. If you are resigning prior to the conclusion of your administration, check the will or trust document to see who succeeds you as fiduciary. If no successor is named, you may need a court proceeding to appoint a successor before you can be discharged.
Which United States jurisdictions allow for the creation of asset protection trusts?
Domestic asset protection trusts are permitted under the laws of Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.
What other areas of law should an estate planning attorney be familiar with before practicing asset protection planning?
In addition to a working knowledge of taxation and business entities, an estate planning attorney wishing to engage in asset protection planning should be familiar with general concepts of bankruptcy law and creditor/debtor law. Specifically, knowledge of how applicable fraudulent transfer/conveyance laws apply to proposed planning (either under the UFTA or UFCA) is absolutely essential.
Who should consider establishing an asset protection trust?
Asset protection trusts are typically established by individuals in high risk occupations (i.e., doctors and real estate developers) and very wealthy individuals that realize they are targets for creditors due to their net worth. Asset protection trusts can also be used in lieu of a prenuptial agreement.
Are there any tax reasons to establish an asset protection trust?
In certain situations an asset protection trust can be used to eliminate or reduce the imposition of state income taxes. An asset protection trust may also be used to remove assets from a grantor's estate while still allowing the grantor to potentially benefit from the trust assets.
The above information was provided by the American Bar Association
Copyright Patrick Silva. All rights reserved.