Charitable Remainder Trusts: Income for Life and a Good Deed at Death

Many people like the idea of leaving bequests to favorite charities in their wills. But instead of leaving money to a charity in your will, you can put that money into a charitable remainder trust and collect income while you are still alive. Charitable remainder trusts have many other advantages, including reducing your income and estate taxes and diversifying your assets.

A charitable remainder trust is an irrevocable trust that provides you (and possibly your spouse) with income for life. You place assets into the trust and during your lifetime you receive a set percentage from the trust. When you die, the remainder in the trust goes to the charity (or charities) of your choice

A charitable remainder trust has many benefits:

  • At the time you create the trust, you will receive an income tax deduction for charitable giving. Under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. This means that if your charitable contributions along with any other itemized deductions are less than $12,000 a year, the standard deduction will lower your tax bill more than itemizing your deductions. Giving a large sum of money to a charitable remainder trust is a good way to get the deduction.
  • Any profit from the sale of investments within the trust are not subject to capital gains tax, which means the trustee may have more freedom in managing the assets.
  • When you die, the assets in the trust will pass outside your estate and be eligible for the estate tax charitable deduction.

The downside of a charitable remainder trust is that it is irrevocable, meaning once you create the trust, you can’t cancel it. While you can’t revoke the trust, you may have the ability to change the beneficiary if you decide to give to a different charity. You may also serve as trustee, giving you control over how the trust assets are invested. In addition, note that any income you receive from the trust will be subject to income taxes.

To find out if a charitable remainder trust is right for you, talk to  Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

 

Estate Planning During a Divorce: Four Key Considerations

You have planned your life carefully. With your spouse you have drawn up a will and established trusts to organize your estate after your deaths. You have made decisions about the guardianship of your children should anything happen to you both before they come of age. Together, you have put insurance policies in place for health, life, and disability. And most likely you are each named beneficiaries on the other’s retirement plan.

The only thing you didn’t plan for was divorce.

What happens to your estate plan now? Here are some key strategies to make sure your wishes are protected during and after the process of separation and divorce.

Be familiar with existing documents and understand what needs to change now that you are getting divorced.

These documents include your will, health care proxy, power of attorney, insurance policies, and any trusts you and your spouse may have established together (such as a special needs trust to set aside funds to care for a family member). Most of these will need to be updated or replaced, as you and your soon-to-be ex may have different ideas about beneficiaries and instructions once one or the other passes away.

Understand how life insurance works.

If you and your spouse have life insurance, be clear on how it is paid for and what it guarantees. Whoever owns the policy is responsible for paying premiums and keeping the policy in force and also has the authority to change beneficiaries. You want to make sure you and your family are provided for in the event of your ex’s premature death. Life insurance is an important component of any divorce settlement, to guarantee the continued flow of alimony, child support, or both, as determined by the divorce settlement. Having a trust as owner of the insurance policy is a good way to avoid gaps and pitfalls in insurance planning that might otherwise arise during or after a divorce.

Consider setting up a trust to handle alimony and child support, and to direct funds to your heirs. 

A revocable living trust will spell out instructions and requirements for paying alimony and child support. The trust’s creator – the grantor — is required to fund the trust, which will make payments according to the trust’s provisions. The added benefit of a trust means that funds can go to beneficiaries on the grantor’s death without being tied up in the probate process. These instruments also have tax advantages for divorcing couples as part of the federal tax reforms that went into effect in 2018. Talk to your tax advisor for details about how this law affects you and your divorce settlement.

Make sure an estate planner is part of your team as you navigate the divorce process.

This is perhaps the most important part of your plan. An estate planner can review the divorce settlement and look for any gaps. Are you protected from state and federal estate taxes? What’s the impact of divorce on retirement account beneficiaries? Are you and your heirs adequately provided for in the event of your ex’s death? What about your wishes for the children if you pass away while they are still young? Divorce attorneys have a different set of concerns and may overlook these key considerations. Lastly, be sure to hire your own estate planner rather than continue with the attorney who drew up a plan for you and your spouse. Under most state laws, when couples are jointly represented, everything you tell the lawyer, even privately, is not confidential from your spouse.

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

 

 

Five Estate Planning Myths

There are lots of misconceptions about estate planning, and any one of them can result in costly mistakes. Understanding who needs an estate plan and what it should cover is key to creating a plan that is right for you.

A properly crafted estate plan 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.

The following are some common myths that people have about estate planning:

  • My estate isn’t big enough to need planning. It is true that if you have a small estate, you may not need a complicated will or trust, but even if you have only a few assets, your estate plan can direct where you want those assets to go. In addition, a will allows you to name a guardian for your young children. Estate planning isn’t just about the will, however. A thorough estate plan also includes a power of attorney and a health care proxy, both of which protect you while you’re still alive. A power of attorney allows you to appoint someone to handle your finances in the event that you are ever unable to do so yourself. A health care proxy appoints someone you trust to make medical decisions for you in the event of your incapacity.
  • I’m too young for an estate plan. No one likes to think about death, but it is important to be prepared at any age. Unfortunately, accidents can happen to anyone. As described above, an estate plan not only allows you to dictate where your assets should go, it also allows you to name a guardian for young children and plan for incapacity.
  • My will takes care of everything. A 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. (Probate is the court process by which a deceased person’s property is passed to his or her heirs and people named in the will.) 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. A good plan should be designed to avoid probate, save on estate taxes, protect assets if you need to move into a nursing home, and appoint someone to act for you if you become disabled.
  • It is cheaper to create a will on my own. It is tempting to try to save money by using a do-it-yourself online will service or just writing something up yourself, but these poorly drafted documents may only cost additional money in the end. It is impossible to know, without a legal education and years of experience, what the right legal solution is to any particular situation and what planning opportunities are available. If there is anything about a family situation that’s not commonplace, using a DIY estate planning program means taking a large risk that can affect one’s family for generations to come.  And only an attorney can determine whether a particular situation qualifies as commonplace. Without clear instructions, your assets may not go where you want and can lead to problems that drag out your estate administration, cost money, and create headaches for your heirs.
  • Once a plan is in place, I’m done. Once you have a plan in place, you need to review it every few years or whenever you have major life changes. Circumstances change over time and your estate plan needs to keep up with these changes. Major changes that may affect your plan include getting married or divorced, having children, or experiencing an increase or decrease in assets. Even if you don’t have any major changes, you should review your plan periodically to make sure it still expresses your wishes.

Contact Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton to get working on your estate plan.

 

Three Reasons Why Joint Accounts May Be a Poor Estate Plan

Many people, especially seniors, see joint ownership as an easy way to avoid probate and plan for incapacity, but there are major drawbacks to joint accounts.

When people own property as joint tenants each person has an equal ownership interest in the property. If one joint tenant dies, his or her interest immediately ceases to exist and the other joint tenant owns the entire property. Joint ownership of investment and bank accounts can be a cheap and easy way to avoid probate since joint property passes automatically to the joint owner at death. In addition, joint ownership can also be an easy way to plan for incapacity since the joint owner of accounts can pay bills and manage investments if the primary owner falls ill or suffers from dementia. These are all true benefits of joint ownership, but three potential problems with joint ownership:

  1. Risk. Joint owners of accounts have complete access and the ability to use the funds for their own purposes. Many children who are caring for their parents take money in payment without first making sure the amount is accepted by all the children. In addition, the funds are available to the creditors of all joint owners, so if the child got divorced or was sued, the money could be available to the child’s creditors. Similarly, if a joint owner applied for public benefits or financial aid, the money would be considered as belonging to all the joint owners.
  2. Inequity. If a senior has one or more children on certain accounts, but not all children, at her death some children may end up inheriting more than the others. While the senior may expect that all of the children will share equally, and often they do in such circumstances, there’s no guarantee. People with several children can maintain accounts with each, but they will have to constantly work to make sure the accounts are all at the same level, and there are no guarantees that this constant attention will work, especially if funds need to be drawn down to pay for care.
  3. The Unexpected. A system based on joint accounts can really fail if a child passes away before the parent. Then it may be necessary to seek conservatorship to manage the funds or they may ultimately pass to the surviving siblings with nothing or only a small portion going to the deceased child’s family. For example, a mother put her house in joint ownership with her son to avoid probate and Medicaid’s estate recovery claim. When the son died unexpectedly, the daughter-in-law was left high and dry despite having devoted the prior six years to caring for her husband’s mother.

Joint accounts do work well in two situations. First, when a senior has just one child and wants everything to go to him or her, joint accounts can be a simple way to provide for succession and asset management. It has some of the risks described above, but for many clients the risks are outweighed by the convenience of joint accounts.

Second, it can be useful to put one or more children on one’s checking account to pay customary bills and to have access to funds in the event of incapacity or death. Since these working accounts usually do not consist of the bulk of a client’s estate, the risks listed above are relatively minor.

For the rest of a senior’s assets, wills, trusts and durable powers of attorney are much better planning tools. They do not put the senior’s assets at risk. They provide that the estate will be distributed as the senior wishes without constantly rejiggering account values or in the event of a child’s incapacity or death. And they provide for asset management in the event of the senior’s incapacity.

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

 

Medicaid’s Power to Recoup Benefits Paid: Estate Recovery and Liens

Federal law requires the state to attempt to recover the long-term care benefits from a Medicaid recipient’s estate after the recipient’s death. If steps aren’t taken to protect the Medicaid recipient’s house, it may need to be sold to settle the claim.

For Medicaid recipients age 55 or older, states must seek recovery of payments from the individual’s estate for nursing facility services, home and community-based services, and related hospital and prescription drug services. States also have the option of recovering all Medicaid benefits from individuals over age 55, including costs for any medical care, not just long-term care benefits.

There are a few exceptions. The state cannot recover from the estate of a Medicaid recipient who has a surviving spouse until after the spouse passes away. After the spouse dies, the state may file a claim against the spouse’s estate to recover money spent for the Medicaid recipient’s care. The state also cannot recover from the estate if the Medicaid recipient had a child who is under age 21 or a child who is blind or disabled.

While states must attempt to recover funds from the Medicaid recipient’s probate estate, meaning property that is held in the beneficiary’s name only, they have the option of seeking recovery against property in which the recipient had an interest but which passes outside of probate (this is called “expanded” estate recovery). This includes jointly held assets, assets in a living trust, or life estates. Given the rules for Medicaid eligibility, the only probate property of substantial value that a Medicaid recipient is likely to own at death is his or her home. However, states that have not opted to broaden their estate recovery to include non-probate assets may not make a claim against the Medicaid recipient’s home if it is not in his or her probate estate.

In addition to the right to recover from the estate of the Medicaid beneficiary, state Medicaid agencies may place a lien on real estate owned by a Medicaid beneficiary during his or her life unless certain dependent relatives are living in the property. The state cannot impose a lien if a spouse, a disabled or blind child, a child under age 21, or a sibling with an equity interest in the house is living there.

Once a lien is placed on the property, if the property is sold while the Medicaid beneficiary is living, not only will the beneficiary cease to be eligible for Medicaid due to the cash from the sale, but the beneficiary would have to satisfy the lien by paying back the state for its coverage of care to date. In some states, the lien may be removed upon the beneficiary’s death. In other states, the state can collect on the lien after the Medicaid recipient dies. Check with your attorney to see how your local agency handles this.

There are some circumstances under which the value of a house can be protected from Medicaid recovery. The state cannot recover if the Medicaid recipient and his or her spouse owned the home as tenants by the entireties or if the house is in the spouse’s name and the Medicaid recipient relinquished his or her interest. If the house is in an irrevocable trust, the state cannot recover from it.

In addition, some children or relatives may be able to protect a nursing home resident’s house if they qualify for an undue hardship waiver. For example, if a Medicaid recipient’s daughter took care of him before he entered the nursing home and she has no other permanent residence, she may be able to avoid a claim against his house after he dies.

Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton to find out if the undue hardship waiver may be applicable.

What to Do If You Are Appointed Guardian of an Older Adult

Being appointed guardian of a loved one is a serious responsibility. As guardian, you are in charge of your loved one’s well-being and you have a duty to act in his or her best interest.

If an adult becomes mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making responsible decisions, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a “guardian,” but in some states called a “conservator” or other term. Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the “guardian”) and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the “ward”).

If you have been appointed guardian, the following are things you need to know:

  • Read the court order. The court appoints the guardian and sets up your powers and duties. You can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, you may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. If you aren’t sure what you are allowed to do, consult with a lawyer in your state.
  • Fiduciary duty. You have what’s called a “fiduciary duty” to your ward, which is an extremely high standard. You are legally required to act in the best interest of your ward at all times and manage your ward’s money and property carefully. With that in mind, it is imperative that you keep your finances separate from your ward’s finances. In addition, you should never use the ward’s money to give (or lend) money to someone else or for someone else’s benefit (or your own benefit) without approval of the court. Finally, as part of your fiduciary duty you must maintain good records of everything you receive or spend. Keep all your receipts and a detailed list of what the ward’s money was spent on.
  • File reports on time. The court order should specify what reports you are required to file. The first report is usually an inventory of the ward’s property. You then may have to file yearly accountings with the court detailing what you spent and received on behalf of the ward. Finally, after the ward dies or the guardianship ends, you will need to file a final accounting.
  • Consult the ward. As much as possible you should include the ward in your decision-making. Communicate what you are doing and try to determine what your ward would like done.
  • Don’t limit social interaction. Guardians should not limit a ward’s interaction with family and friends unless it would cause the ward substantial harm. Some states have laws in place requiring the guardian to allow the ward to communicate with loved ones. Social interaction is usually beneficial to an individual’s well-being and sense of self-worth. If the ward has to move, try to keep the ward near loved ones.

For a detailed guide from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on being a guardian, click hereQuestions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

Don’t Let Medicare Open Enrollment Go By Without Reassessing Your Options

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Don’t let this period slip by without shopping around to see whether your current choices are the best ones for you.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans. Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of open enrollment, but of those that do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2019 should review their choices for 2020, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

The 2020 Social Security Increase Will Be Smaller than 2019’s

The Social Security Administration has announced a 1.6 percent increase in benefits in 2020, nearly half of last year’s change. The small rise has advocates questioning whether the government is using the proper method to calculate the cost of living for older Americans and those with disabilities.

Cost-of-living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and a modest upturn in inflation rates and gas prices means Social Security recipients will get only a small boost in 2020. The 1.6 percent increase is lower than last year’s 2.8 percent rise and the 2 percent increase in 2018. The average monthly benefit of $1,479 in 2019 will go up by $24 a month to $1,503 a month for an individual beneficiary, or $288 yearly.

The cost-of-living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $132,900 to $137,700.

For 2020, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $783 for an individual and $1,175 for a couple.

The smaller increase may mean that additional income will be entirely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees is forecast to rise $8.80 a month to $144.30. According to USA Today, advocates are questioning the method used to calculate cost-of-living increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers to set the inflation rate. This method looks at prices for gasoline, electronics, and other items that younger workers rely on. The advocates suggest using a different index (the Consumer Price Index for Elderly) that puts greater emphasis on medical and housing expenses.

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their cost-of-living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2019. While you will still receive your increase notice by mail, in the future you will be able to choose whether to receive your notice online instead of on paper.

For more on the 2020 Social Security benefit levels, click here.

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

Understanding the Differences Between a Will and a Trust

Everyone has heard the terms “will” and “trust,” but not everyone knows the differences between the two. Both are useful estate planning devices that serve different purposes, and both can work together to create a complete estate plan.

One main difference between a will and a trust is that a will goes into effect only after you die, while a trust takes effect as soon as you create it. A will is a document that directs who will receive your property at your death and it appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. By contrast, a trust can be used to begin distributing property before death, at death, or afterwards. 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.” A trust usually has two types of beneficiaries — one set that receives income from the trust during their lives and another set that receives whatever is left over after the first set of beneficiaries dies.

A will covers any property that is only in your name when you die. It does not cover property held in joint tenancy or in a trust. A trust, on the other hand, covers only property that has been transferred to the trust. In order for property to be included in a trust, it must be put in the name of the trust.

Another difference between a will and a trust is that a will passes through probate. That means a court oversees the administration of the will and ensures the will is valid and the property gets distributed the way the deceased wanted. A trust passes outside of probate, so a court does not need to oversee the process, which can save time and money. Unlike a will, which becomes part of the public record, a trust can remain private.

Wills and trusts each have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, a will allows you to name a guardian for children and to specify funeral arrangements, while a trust does not. On the other hand, a trust can be used to plan for disability or to provide savings on taxes.

Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton to learn how best to use a will and a trust in your estate plan.

Estate Planning When You Have a Stepfamily

Ideally, when a second marriage joins two families together, it should be a joyous occasion that creates one bigger family unit. Unfortunately, it too often also creates inheritance fights between stepparents and children. A good estate plan is necessary to help avoid these types of family squabbles.

Complications can arise when two people who both have children from previous relationships marry. Married people typically leave everything to their spouse, so children from the previous relationship may now see their inheritance go to their stepparent, who may in turn leave it to his or her own children. Even if the stepparent promises to take care of the stepchildren, it doesn’t always work out that way. And if additional children are added to the relationship, things can get even more complicated.

Every couple needs to redo their estate plan before they get remarried. The following are some ideas for reducing or eliminating disputes before they arise:

  • Consider a trust. A trust can allow you to leave money to your spouse for your spouse’s lifetime and then pass the balance to your children. There are a variety of different types of trusts that can be structured to fit your family’s particular needs.
  • Leave something for your children. Even if the bulk of your estate is going to your spouse, you may want to consider leaving a little something to your children in your will. It is a sign of good will and it means your children won’t be waiting around for their stepparent to die.
  • Buy life insurance. Life insurance can be a good way to make sure your children inherit. You can leave your estate to your spouse, but take out a life insurance policy with your children as beneficiaries.
  • Divide personal property. Family heirlooms can be a big source of problems even if their only value is sentimental. You can make your wishes known by writing up a list of personal items and the names of who they should go to and attaching it to your will.

If you are planning on remarrying, consult with your attorney to find the best way to make sure your wishes are carried out with as few issues as possible. Questions? Reach out to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.