Estate Planning

Why Plan Your Estate?

The knowledge that we will eventually die is one of the things that seems to distinguish humans from other living beings. At the same time, no one likes to dwell on the prospect of his or her own death. But if you postpone planning for your demise until it is too late, you run the risk that your intended beneficiaries — those you love the most — may not receive what you would want them to receive whether due to extra administration costs, unnecessary taxes or squabbling among your heirs.

This is why estate planning is so important, no matter how small your estate may be. It allows you, while you are still living, to ensure that your property will go to the people you want, in the way you want, and when you want. It permits you to save as much as possible on taxes, court costs and attorneys’ fees; and it affords the comfort that your loved ones can mourn your loss without being simultaneously burdened with unnecessary red tape and financial confusion.

Most estate plans should include, at minimum, two important estate planning instruments: a durable power of attorney and a will. The first is for managing your property during your life, in case you are ever unable to do so yourself. The second is for the management and distribution of your property after death. In addition, more and more, Americans also are using revocable (or “living”) trusts to avoid probate and to manage their estates both during their lives and after they’re gone.

Your Durable Power of Attorney

For many people, the durable power of attorney may be the most important estate planning instrument available–even more useful than a will. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” — to act in your place for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated.

In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that she could implement immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.

A power of attorney may be limited or general. A limited power of attorney may give someone the very specific right to sign a deed to property on a day when you are out of town. Or it may simply allow someone to sign checks for you, for instance. A general power is comprehensive and gives your attorney-in-fact all the same powers and rights that you have yourself.

A power of attorney may also be either current or “springing.” Most powers of attorney take effect immediately upon their execution, even if the understanding is that they will not be used until and unless the grantor becomes incapacitated. However, the document can also be written so that it does not become effective until such incapacity occurs. In such cases, it is very important that the standard for determining incapacity and triggering the power of attorney be clearly laid out in the document itself.

You should always discuss your specific goals with an attorney before executing a power of attorney, to ensure that the instrument is appropriate for that which you wish to accomplish.

Your Will

Your will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. It also appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. However, the will covers only probate property. Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly-owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate.

Why should you have a will? Here are some reasons:

First, with a will you can direct where and to whom your estate (what you own) will go after your death. If you die intestate (without a will), your estate will be distributed according to Missouri’s intestacy statutes (i.e. the state’s will for you). Such a distribution may or may not match your wishes.

The second reason to have a will is to make the administration of your estate run smoothly. Often the probate process can be completed more quickly and at less expense to your estate if there is a will. With a clear expression of your wishes, there are unlikely to be any costly, time-consuming disputes over who gets what.

Third, only with a will can you choose the person to administer your estate and distribute it according to your instructions. This person is called your “personal representative” in Missouri. If you do not have a will naming a personal representative for your estate, the court will make this choice for you.

Fourth, for larger estates, a well-planned will can help reduce estate taxes.

Fifth, and most important, through a will you can appoint who will take your place as guardian of your minor children, should both you and their other parent both pass away.

Wills can be complicated and require strict compliance with certain statutory requirements to be valid.  It is always important to discuss your objectives with an attorney to ensure that your Will is prepared properly and will be valid.

Your Medical Directive

Any complete estate plan should also include a medical directive. This term may encompass a number of different documents, including a health care proxy, a durable power of attorney for health care decisions, a living will, and medical instructions. The exact document or documents will depend on your choices and objectives.

Both a health care proxy and a durable power of attorney for health care decisions designate someone you choose to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself.

A living will instructs your health care provider to withdraw life support if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state.

A broader medical directive may include the terms of a living will, but will also provide instructions if you are in a less severe state of health, but are still unable to direct your health care yourself.

Like any power of attorney, medical directives need to be discussed with your attorney and tailored to your specific objectives.

Trusts

A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” The rules or instructions under which the trustee operates are set out in the trust instrument.

There can be several advantages to establishing a trust, depending on your situation. Best-known is the advantage of avoiding probate. In a trust that terminates with the death of the donor, any property in the trust prior to the donor’s death passes immediately to the beneficiaries by the terms of the trust without requiring probate. This can save time and money for the beneficiaries. Certain trusts can also result in tax advantages both for the donor and the beneficiary. These are often referred to as “credit shelter” or “life insurance” trusts. Other trusts may be used to protect property from creditors or to help the donor qualify for Medicaid. Unlike wills, trusts are private documents and only those individuals with a direct interest in the trust need know of trust assets and distribution. Provided they are well-drafted, another advantage of trusts is their continuing effectiveness even if the donor dies or becomes incapacitated.

Kinds of Trusts

Trusts fall into two basic categories: testamentary and inter vivos.

A testamentary trust is one created by your will, and it does not come into existence until you die. In contrast, an inter vivos trust starts during your lifetime. You create it now and it exists during your life.

There are two kinds of inter vivos trusts: revocable and irrevocable.

Revocable Trusts

Revocable trusts are often referred to as “living” trusts. With a revocable trust, the donor maintains complete control over the trust and may amend, revoke or terminate the trust at any time. This means that you, the donor, can take back the funds you put in the trust or change the trust’s terms. Thus, the donor is able to reap the benefits of the trust arrangement while maintaining the ability to change the trust at any time prior to death.

Revocable trusts are generally used for the following purposes:

  1. Asset management. They permit the named trustee to administer and invest the trust property for the benefit of one or more beneficiaries.
  2. Probate avoidance. At the death of the person who created the trust, the “grantor” or “donor,” the trust property passes to whoever is named in the trust. It does not come under the jurisdiction of the probate court and its distribution need not be held up by the probate process. However, the property of a revocable trust will be included in the grantor’s estate for tax purposes.
  3. Tax planning. While the assets of a revocable trust will be included in the grantor’s taxable estate, the trust can be drafted so that the assets will not be included in the estates of the beneficiaries, thus avoiding taxes when the beneficiaries die.

Irrevocable Trusts

An irrevocable trust cannot be changed or amended by the donor. Any property placed into the trust may only be distributed by the trustee as provided for in the trust document itself. For instance, the donor may set up a trust under which he or she will receive income earned on the trust property, but that bars access to the trust principal. This type of irrevocable trust is a popular tool for Medicaid planning.

Testamentary Trusts

As noted above, a testamentary trust is a trust created by a will. Such a trust has no power or effect until the will of the donor is probated. Although a testamentary trust will not avoid the need for probate and will become a public document as it is a part of the will, it can be useful in accomplishing other estate planning goals. For instance, the testamentary trust can be used to reduce estate taxes on the death of a spouse or provide for the care of a disabled child.

Supplemental Needs Trusts

The purpose of a supplemental needs trust is to enable the donor to provide for the continuing care of a disabled spouse, child, relative or friend. The beneficiary of a well-drafted supplemental needs trust will have access to the trust assets for purposes other than those provided by public benefits programs. In this way, the beneficiary will not lose eligibility for benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and low-income housing. A supplemental needs trust can be created by the donor during life or be part of a will.

Estate Administration (Probate Court)

The administration of an estate is the probate court process by which a deceased person’s property, known as the “estate,” is passed to his or her heirs and legatees (people named in the will). The entire process, which may or may not be supervised by the probate court, varies in cost, duration and complexity depending on the type of estate plan you have (sometimes none) and the size of your estate.

The emotional trauma brought on by the death of a close family member often is accompanied by bewilderment about the financial and legal steps the survivors must take. The spouse who passed away may have handled all of the couple’s finances. Or perhaps a child must begin taking care of probating an estate about which he or she knows little. And this task may come on top of commitments to family and work that can’t be set aside. Finally, the estate itself may be in disarray or scattered among many accounts.

Here we set out the steps the surviving family members should take. These responsibilities ultimately fall on whoever was appointed as personal representative in the deceased family member’s will. Matters can be a bit more complicated in the absence of a will, because it may not be clear who has the responsibility of carrying out these steps.

First, secure the tangible property. This means anything you can touch, such as silverware, dishes, furniture, or artwork. You will need to determine accurate values of each piece of property, which may require appraisals, and then distribute the property as the deceased directed. If property is passed around to family members before you have the opportunity to take an inventory, this will become a difficult, if not impossible, task. Of course, this does not apply to gifts the deceased may have made during life, which will not be part of his or her estate.

Second, take your time. You do not need to take any other steps immediately. While bills do need to be paid, they can wait a month or two without adverse repercussions. It’s more important that you and your family have time to grieve. Financial matters can wait. (One exception: Social Security should be notified within a month of death. If checks are issued following death, you could be in for a battle. For more on Social Security’s death procedures, click on http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/deathbenefits.htm)

When you’re ready, but not a day sooner, meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the deceased’s estate. Bring as much information as possible about finances, taxes and debts. Don’t worry about putting the papers in order first; the lawyer will have experience in organizing and understanding confusing financial statements.

Estate administration generally includes these steps:

1. Filing the will and petition with the probate court in order to be appointed personal representative. In the absence of a will, heirs must petition the court to be appointed “administrator” of the estate.

2. Collecting, the assets. This means that you have to find out everything the deceased owned. You need to file a list, known as an “inventory,” with the probate court. It’s generally best to consolidate all the estate funds to the extent possible. Bills and bequests should be paid from a single checking account, either one you establish or one set up by your attorney, so that you can keep track of all expenditures.

3. Paying bills and taxes. If an estate tax return is needed—generally if the estate exceeds $1 million in value—it must be filed within nine months of the date of death. If you miss this deadline and the estate is taxable, severe penalties and interest may apply. If you do not have all the information available in time, you can file for an extension and pay your best estimate of the tax due.

4. Filing tax returns. You must also file a final income tax return for the decedent and, if the estate holds any assets and earns interest or dividends, an income tax return for the estate. If the estate does earn income during the administration process, it will have to obtain its own tax identification number in order to keep track of such earnings.

5. Distributing property to the heirs and legatees. Generally, personal representatives do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period runs out for creditors to make claims. But once the personal representative  understands the estate and the likely claims, he or she can distribute most of the assets, retaining a reserve for unanticipated claims and the costs of closing out the estate.

6. Filing a final account. The personal representative must file an account with the probate court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions. Once the court approves this final account, the personal representative can distribute whatever is left in the estate, and finish his or her work.

Some of these steps can be eliminated by avoiding probate through joint ownership or trusts. But whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns, and distribute the property to the rightful heirs. You can make it easier for your heirs by keeping good records of your assets and liabilities. This will shorten the process and reduce the legal bill.

It is important to consult with an attorney to determine what type of probate administration is appropriate in each case.  Personal Representatives of estates will almost always need the advice of any attorney in the discharge of their duties.

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