Annuities and Medicaid Planning

In some circumstances, immediate annuities can be ideal Medicaid planning tools for spouses of nursing home residents. Careful planning is needed to make sure an annuity will work for you or your spouse.

An immediate annuity, in its simplest form, is a contract with an insurance company under which the consumer pays a certain amount of money to the company and the company sends the consumer a monthly check for the rest of his or her life.

In most states the purchase of an annuity is not considered to be a transfer for purposes of eligibility for Medicaid, but is instead the purchase of an investment. It transforms otherwise countable assets into a non-countable income stream. As long as the income is in the name of the community spouse, it’s not a problem.

In order for the annuity purchase not to be considered a transfer, it must meet the following basic requirements:

  1. It must be irrevocable–you cannot have the right to take the funds out of the annuity except through the monthly payments.
  2. You must receive back at least what you paid into the annuity during your actuarial life expectancy. For instance, if you have an actuarial life expectancy of 10 years, and you pay $60,000 for an annuity, you must receive annuity payments of at least $500 a month ($500 x 12 x 10 = $60,000).
  3. If you purchase an annuity with a term certain (see below), it must be shorter than your actuarial life expectancy.
  4. The state must be named the remainder beneficiary up to the amount of Medicaid paid on the annuitant’s behalf.

Example: Mrs. Jones, the community spouse, lives in a state where the most money she can keep for herself and still have Mr. Jones, who is in a nursing home, qualify for Medicaid (her maximum resource allowance) is $128,640 (in 2020). However, Mrs. Jones has $238,640 in countable assets. She can take the difference of $110,000 and purchase an annuity, making her husband in the nursing home immediately eligible for Medicaid. She would continue to receive the annuity check each month for the rest of her life.

In most instances, the purchase of an annuity should wait until the unhealthy spouse moves to a nursing home. In addition, if the annuity has a term certain — a guaranteed number of payments no matter the lifespan of the annuitant — the term must be shorter than the life expectancy of the healthy spouse. Further, if the community spouse does die with guaranteed payments remaining on the annuity, they must be payable to the state for reimbursement up to the amount of the Medicaid paid for either spouse.

All annuities must be disclosed by an applicant for Medicaid regardless of whether the annuity is irrevocable or treated as a countable asset. If an individual, spouse, or representative refuses to disclose sufficient information related to any annuity, the state must either deny or terminate coverage for long-term care services or else deny or terminate Medicaid eligibility.

Annuities are of less benefit for a single individual in a nursing home because he or she would have to pay the monthly income from the annuity to the nursing home. However, in some states immediate annuities may have a place for single individuals who are considering transferring assets. Income from an annuity can be used to help pay for long-term care during the Medicaid penalty period that results from the transfer. In such cases, the annuity is usually short-term, just long enough to cover the penalty period.

In short, immediate annuities are a very powerful tool in the right circumstances. They must also be distinguished from deferred annuities, which have no Medicaid planning purpose. The use of immediate annuities as a Medicaid planning tool is under attack in some states, so be sure to consult with a your attorney before pursuing the strategy described above.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Special Tax Deduction for 2020 Allows Donations of $300 to Charity Without Itemizing

As we enter the giving season, there is an additional reason to be charitable. Congress enacted a special provision that allows more people to easily deduct up to $300 in donations to qualifying charities this year.

Since the increase in the standard income tax deduction in 2018, only 11 percent of taxpayers itemize deductions, so fewer taxpayers take advantage of the charitable deduction. But to both encourage and reward giving in this difficult year, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Congress created a one-time $300 charitable deduction for people who do not itemize on their tax returns. To qualify, you must give cash (including paying by check or credit card) to a 501(c)(3) charity. Gifts of goods or stock do not qualify.

While $300 may not seem like much, it can make a big difference to smaller charities. And a lot of $300 gifts can add up.  One thing that’s not clear is whether a married couple filing jointly can deduct $600. While it’s logical that they should be able to do so, the IRS has not clarified this yet. With just four weeks left in the year, time is a-wasting.

Here are some places you might take a look at to determine which charity you would like to support before the end of the year:

For more information from the IRS about the tax deduction, click here.

Or, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Don’t Forget to Fund Your Revocable Trust

Revocable trusts are a very popular and useful estate planning tool. But the trust will be ineffective if you do not actually place your assets in the trust.

Revocable trusts are an effective way to avoid probate and provide for asset management in the event of incapacity. In addition, revocable trusts — sometimes called “living” trusts — are incredibly flexible and can achieve many other goals, including tax, long-term care, and asset-protection planning.

However, you can’t take advantage of what the trust has to offer if you don’t place your assets into it. If you don’t fund the trust, your assets may have to go through a costly probate proceeding or be distributed to beneficiaries you did not intend. Not funding your trust can undermine your whole estate plan.

To transfer assets to the trust, whether real estate, bank accounts, or investment accounts, you need to retitle the assets in the name of the trust. To place bank and investment accounts into your trust, you need to retitle them as follows: “[your name and co-trustee’s name] as Trustees of [trust name] Revocable Trust created by agreement dated [date].” Depending on the institution, you might be able to change the name on an existing account. Otherwise you will need to open a new account in the name of the trust and then transfer the funds. The financial institution will probably require a copy of the trust, or at least of the first page and the signature page, as well as signatures of all the trustees. As long as you are serving as your own trustee or co-trustee, you can use your Social Security number for the trust. If you are not a trustee, the trust will have to obtain a separate tax identification number and file a separate 1041 tax return each year. You will still be taxed on all of the income and the trust will pay no separate tax.

If you are placing real estate into the trust, you should consult with your attorney to ensure it is done correctly. You should also consult with your attorney before placing life insurance or annuities into a revocable trust. And consult with your attorney before naming the trust as the beneficiary of your IRAs or 401(k) because that could have tax consequence.

Once your trust is fully funded, don’t forget about it. When you acquire new assets, do not forget to add them to the trust. You should review your trust annually to make sure everything is titled properly.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

The Hazards of Do-it-Yourself Estate Planning

Many websites offer customized, do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents.  Although such products are convenient, using them could create serious and expensive legal problems for heirs.

These digital services appear to offer a cost-effective and easy alternative to visiting an estate planning or elder law attorney. But is online estate planning worth the convenience and initial savings? While online services might work fine if you have little or no property, small savings or investments, and a traditional family tree, anyone whose needs are not simple should not try to create an estate plan without the help of an attorney.

And you’ll likely need a lawyer to definitively determine whether or not your needs are indeed simple. Do you have an estate that is taxable under state or federal law? Do you own significant amounts of tax-deferred retirement plans? Do you know how to fund a revocable trust? Is there anything about your estate that is unusual, such as having children from a previous marriage or a disabled child? If you have any questions about your estate plan, you need to see a professional.

The following are some examples of what can happen if you try to create an estate plan without the help of an attorney:

  • Using an online generic will, a Florida woman listed several possessions and bank accounts that she intended to go to her brother. After writing the will, the woman inherited additional money and property. However, the woman did not have a “residuary clause” in the original will to say where additional assets should go, and she never revised the will to account for this new property. After she died, her brother argued he should be entitled to her entire estate, but her nieces argued the estate should pass intestate (under the laws of her state as if she had died without a will). The court ruled that because the will had no residuary clause or general bequests that could include the inherited property, the after-acquired property would pass under Florida’s laws of intestacy. This meant the brother was not the sole beneficiary. Aldrich v. Basile (Fla., No. SC11-2147, March 27, 2014)
  • A Massachusetts man used a pre-packaged will form to leave his home to his wife and his four grown children, the product of an earlier marriage. The problem was that the will didn’t give the wife the option to remain in the house for the rest of her life.  A court case ensued because the children, who possessed the majority interest in the property, could have legally forced the wife to move.
  • A Pennsylvania man wanted his estate to go to only two of his five children. He wrote his own will, giving his pickup truck to his daughter and his summer house to his son. He also wrote in the will that he was intentionally leaving out his other three children. The problem was that the man did not specify what to do with the remainder of his estate. He died leaving an estate of $217,000. While he probably intended for that money to go to the two children he didn’t disinherit, because the will had no residuary clause, the remainder of the man’s estate passed under the state law that specifies who inherits when there is no will. This meant the estate was divided between all five children. (In Re: Estate of George Zeevering, No. 316-2012, Nov. 7, 2012)
  • The company LegalZoom, one of the most prominent sellers of do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents, settled a class action lawsuit brought an unhappy customer in California. A niece helped her uncle prepare a will and trust using LegalZoom. The niece believed that the documents they created would be legally binding and that if they encountered any problems, the company’s customer service department would resolve them. The niece could not transfer any of her uncle’s assets into the trust because the financial institutions that held his money refused to accept the LegalZoom documents as valid. She had to hire an estate planning attorney to fix the problems, and the attorney also discovered that the will LegalZoom created had not been properly witnessed. All this cost the uncle’s estate thousands of dollars. (Webster v. LegalZoom Inc., No. BC438637, Oct. 1, 2014)

The irony is that using a boilerplate will form in these cases not only frustrated the decedents’ testamentary intent, but ultimately cost their estates far more than a simple consultation with an estate planning or elder law attorney would have.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

A Modest Social Security Increase for 2021

The Social Security Administration has announced a 1.3 percent rise in benefits in 2021, an increase even smaller than last year’s.

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 slight boost in 2021. The 1.3 percent increase is similar to last year’s 1.6 percent increase, but much smaller than the 2.8 percent rise in 2019. The average monthly benefit of $1,523 in 2020 will go up by $20 a month to $1,543 a month for an individual beneficiary, or $240 yearly.

The cost-of-living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $137,700 to $142,800.

For 2021, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $794 for an individual and $1,191 for a couple.

Some years a small increase means that additional income will be entirely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums. But this year, that shouldn’t be the case. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees is forecast to rise $8.70 a month to $153.30. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, under the terms of the short-term spending bill the increase for 2021 will be limited to 25 percent of what it would otherwise have been.

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their specific cost-of-living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2020. While you can still receive your increase notice by mail, you have the option to choose whether to receive your notice online instead of on paper.

For more on the 2021 Social Security benefit levels, click here. Or, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

How to Fix a Required Minimum Distribution Mistake

The rules around required minimum distributions from retirement accounts are confusing, and it’s easy to slip up. Fortunately, if you do make a mistake, there are steps you can take to fix the error and possibly avoid a stiff penalty.

If you have a tax-deferred retirement plan such as a traditional IRA or 401(k), you are required to begin taking distributions once you reach a certain age, with the withdrawn money taxed at your then-current tax rate. If you were age 70 1/2 before the end of 2019, you had to begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) in April of the year after you turned 70. But if you were not yet 70 1/2 by the end of 2019, you can wait to take RMDs until age 72. If you miss a withdrawal or take less than you were required to, you must pay a 50 percent excise tax on the amount that should have been distributed but was not.

It can be easy to miss a distribution or not withdraw the correct amount. If you make a mistake, the first step is to quickly correct the mistake and take the correct distribution. If you missed more than one distribution – either from multiple years or because you withdrew from several different accounts in the same year — it is better to take each distribution separately and for exactly the amount of the shortfall.

The next step is to file IRS form 5329. If you have more than one missed distribution, you can include them on one form as long as they all occurred in the same year. If you missed distributions in multiple years, you need to file a separate form for each year. And married couples who both miss a distribution need to each file their own forms. The form can be tricky, so follow the instructions closely to make sure you correctly fill it out.

In addition to completing form 5329, you should submit a letter, explaining why you missed the distribution and informing the IRS that you have now made the correct distributions. There is no clear definition of what the IRS will consider a reasonable explanation for missing a distribution. If the IRS does not waive the penalty, it will send you a notice.

For more detailed information on how to correct an RMD mistake, click here.  To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Thirteen Estate Planning Terms You Need to Know

Estate planning—it is an incredibly important tool, not just for the uber wealthy or those thinking about retirement. On the contrary, estate planning is something every adult should do.

Estate planning can help you accomplish any number of goals, including appointing guardians for minor children, choosing healthcare agents to make decisions for you should you become ill, minimizing taxes so you can pass more wealth onto your family members, and stating how and to whom you would like to pass your estate on to when you pass away.

While it should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list, it can be an overwhelming topic to dive into. To help you get situated, below are some important terms you should know as you think about your own estate plan.

Assets

Generally, anything a person owns, including a home and other real estate, bank accounts, life insurance, investments, furniture, jewelry, art, clothing, and collectibles.

Beneficiary

A person or entity (such as a charity) that receives a beneficial interest in something, such as an estate, trust, account, or insurance policy.

Distribution

A payment in cash or asset(s) to the beneficiary, individual, or entity who is entitled to receive it.

Estate

All assets and debts left by an individual at death.

Fiduciary

A person with a legal obligation (duty) to act primarily for another person’s benefit, e.g., a trustee or agent under a power of attorney. “Fiduciary” implies great confidence and trust, and a high degree of good faith.

Funding

The process of transferring (re-titling) assets to a living trust. A living trust will only avoid probate at the trustmaker’s death if it is fully funded, meaning it contains all of the decedent’s assets.

Incapacitated/Incompetent

Unable to manage one’s own affairs, either temporarily or permanently; often involves a lack of mental capacity.

Inheritance

The assets received from someone who has died.

Conservatorship

The court-supervised process of managing the assets of an incapacitated person.

Marital deduction

A deduction on the federal estate tax return, it lets the first spouse to die leave an unlimited amount of assets to the surviving spouse free of estate taxes. However, if no other tax planning is used and the surviving spouse’s estate is more than the amount of the federal estate tax exemption in effect at the time of the surviving spouse’s death, estate taxes will be due at that time.

Settle an estate

The process of winding down the final affairs (valuation of assets, payment of debts and taxes, distribution of assets to beneficiaries) after someone dies.

Trust

A fiduciary relationship in which one party, known as the trustmaker or settlor, gives another party, known as the trustee, the right to hold property or assets for the benefit of another party, the beneficiary. The trust should be memorialized by a written trust agreement, outlining how the trust assets will be distributed to the beneficiary.

Will

A written document with instructions for disposing of assets after death. A will can only be enforced through a probate court. A will can also contain the nomination of guardian for minor children.

If you have any additional questions about estate planning, or would like to consult an estate planning professional, reach out to us at 401.272.6300 or via email at astratton@mswri.com or kmoonan@mswri.com.We can make sure you have a comprehensive plan that is tailored to your unique needs and goals.

Wealth Transfer Strategies in an Election Year

With a push by the Democratic party to return federal estate taxes to their historic norms, taxpayers need to act now before Congress passes legislation that could adversely impact their estates.

Currently, the federal estate and gift tax exemption is set at $11.58 million per taxpayer. Assets included in a decedent’s estate that exceed the decedent’s remaining exemption available at death are taxed at a federal rate of 40 percent (with some states adding an additional state estate tax). However, each asset included in the decedent’s estate receives an income tax basis adjustment so that the asset’s basis equals its fair market value on the date of the decedent’s death. Thus, beneficiaries realize capital gain upon the subsequent sale of an asset only to the extent of the asset’s appreciation since the decedent’s death.

If the election results in a political party change, it could mean not only lower estate and gift tax exemption amounts, but also the end of the longtime taxpayer benefit of stepped-up basis at death. To avoid the negative impact of these potential changes, there are a few wealth transfer strategies it would be prudent to consider before the year-end.

Intrafamily Notes and Sales

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Federal Reserve lowered the federal interest rates to stimulate the economy. Accordingly, donors should consider loaning funds or selling one or more income-producing assets, such as an interest in a family business or a rental property, to a family member in exchange for a promissory note that charges interest at the applicable federal rate. In this way, a donor can provide a financial resource to a family member on more flexible terms than a commercial loan. If the investment of the loaned funds or income resulting from the sold assets produces a return greater than the applicable interest rate, the donor effectively transfers wealth to the family members without using the donor’s estate or gift tax exemption.

Swap Power for Basis Management

Assets such as property or accounts gifted or transferred to an irrevocable trust do not receive a step-up in income tax basis at the donor’s death. Gifted assets instead retain the donor’s carryover basis, potentially resulting in significant capital gains realization upon the subsequent sale of any appreciated assets. Exercising the swap power allows the donor to exchange one or more low-basis assets in an existing irrevocable trust for one or more high-basis assets currently owned by and includible in the donor’s estate for estate tax purposes. In this way, low-basis assets are positioned to receive a basis adjustment upon the donor’s death, and the capital gains realized upon the sale of any high-basis assets, whether by the trustee of the irrevocable trust or any trust beneficiary who received an asset-in-kind, may be reduced or eliminated.

Example: Phoenix purchased real estate in 2005 for $1 million and gifted the property to his irrevocable trust in 2015 when the property had a fair market value of $5 million. Phoenix dies in 2020, and the property has a date-of-death value of $11 million. If the trust sells the property soon after Phoenix’s death for $13 million, the trust would be required to pay capital gains tax on $12 million, the difference between the sale price and the purchase price. Let us say that before Phoenix died, he utilized the swap power in his irrevocable trust and exchanged the real estate in the irrevocable trust for stocks and cash having a value equivalent to the fair market value of the real estate on the date of the swap. At Phoenix’s death, because the property is part of his gross estate, the property receives an adjusted basis of $11 million. If his estate or beneficiaries sell the property for $13 million, they will only pay capital gains tax on $2 million, the difference between the adjusted date-of-death basis and the sale price. Under this scenario, Phoenix’s estate and beneficiaries avoid paying capital gains tax on $10 million by taking advantage of the swap power.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trust

A grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT) is an efficient way for a donor to transfer asset appreciation to beneficiaries without using, or using a minimal amount, of the donor’s gift tax exemption. After the donor transfers property to the GRAT and until the expiration of the initial term, the trustee of the GRAT (often the donor for the initial term) will pay the donor an annual annuity amount. The annuity amount is calculated using the applicable federal rate as a specified percentage of the initial fair market value of the property transferred to the GRAT. A Walton or zeroed-out GRAT is intended to result in a remainder interest (the interest that is considered a gift) valued at zero or as close to zero as possible. The donor’s retained interest terminates after the initial term, and any appreciation on the assets in excess of the annuity amounts passes to the beneficiaries. In other words, if the transferred assets appreciate at a rate greater than the historic low applicable federal rate, the GRAT will have succeeded in transferring wealth!

Example: Kevin executes a GRAT with a three-year term when the applicable federal rate is 0.8 percent. He funds the trust with $1 million and receives annuity payments of $279,400 at the end of the first year, $335,280 at the end of the second year, and $402,336 at the end of the third year. Assume that during the three-year term, the GRAT invested the $1 million and realized a return on investment of 5 percent, or approximately $95,000. Over the term of the GRAT, Kevin received a total of $1,017,016 in principal and interest payments and also transferred approximately $95,000 to his beneficiaries with minimal or no impact on his gift tax exemption.

Spousal Lifetime Access Trust

With the threat of a lowered estate and gift tax exemption amount, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) allows donors to lock in the current, historic high exemption amounts to avoid adverse estate tax consequences at death. The donor transfers an amount up to the donor’s available gift tax exemption into the SLAT. Because the gift tax exemption is used, the value of the SLAT’s assets is excluded from the gross estates of both the donor and the donor’s spouse. An independent trustee administers the SLAT for the benefit of the donor’s beneficiaries. In addition to the donor’s spouse, the beneficiaries can be any person or entity including children, friends, and charities. The donor’s spouse may also execute a similar but not identical SLAT for the donor’s benefit. The SLAT allows the appreciation of the assets to escape federal estate taxation and, in most cases, the assets in the SLAT are generally protected against credit claims. Because the SLAT provides protection against both federal estate taxation and creditor claims, it is a powerful wealth transfer vehicle that can be used to transfer wealth to multiple generations of beneficiaries.

Example: Karen and Chad are married, and they are concerned about a potential decrease in the estate and gift tax exemption amount in the upcoming years. Karen executes a SLAT and funds it with $11.58 million in assets. Karen’s SLAT names Chad and their three children as beneficiaries and designates their friend Gus as a trustee. Chad creates and funds a similar trust with $11.58 million that names Karen, their three children, and his nephew as beneficiaries and designates Friendly Bank as a corporate trustee (among other differences between the trust structures). Karen and Chad pass away in the same year when the estate and gift tax exemption is only $6.58 million per person. Even though they have gifted more than the $6.58 million exemption in place at their deaths, the IRS has taken the position that it will not punish taxpayers with a clawback provision that pulls transferred assets back into the taxpayer’s taxable estate. As a result, Karen and Chad have saved $2 million each in estate taxes assuming a 40 percent estate tax rate at the time of their deaths.

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust

An existing insurance policy can be transferred into an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT), or the trustee of the ILIT can purchase an insurance policy in the name of the trust. The donor can make gifts to the ILIT that qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion, and the trustee will use those gifts to pay the policy premiums. Since the insurance policy is held by the ILIT, the premium payments and the full death benefit are not included in the donor’s taxable estate. Furthermore, the insurance proceeds at the donor’s death will be exempt from income taxes.

When Should I Talk to an Estate Planner?

If any of the strategies discussed above interest you, or you feel that potential changes in legislation will negatively impact your wealth, we strongly encourage you to schedule a meeting with us at your earliest convenience … and definitely before the end of the year. We can review your estate plan and recommend changes and improvements to protect you from potential future changes in legislation.

Reach out to us at 401.272.6300 or via email at astratton@mswri.com or kmoonan@mswri.com.

How to Divide Personal Possessions Without Dividing the Family

Allocating your personal possessions can be one of the most difficult tasks when creating an estate plan. To avoid family feuds after you are gone, it is important to have a plan and make your wishes clear.

When passing on possessions to your heirs, savings and investments are easy to divide up, since they can be turned into cash. Real estate can also be turned into cash or co-owners can share it. The most difficult items to divvy up are personal possessions—silverware, dishes, artwork, furniture, tools, jewelry — items that are unique and don’t have a set resale value. In legal speak, these are known as “tangible personal property” and can become the focus of family fights. Often one or more children claim that a parent had promised them a particular item. Things may disappear from a house or an apartment shortly before or after a parent’s death, or a child may claim that her 90-year-old somewhat-demented mother “gave” her a cherished diamond ring during life. These types of situations can create great suspicion and irrevocably split families. Siblings may stop communicating due to their anger and distrust.

Clarity about one’s wishes can go a long way toward avoiding these difficulties. Also, it’s important that the personal representative of an estate (also called an executor) secure the deceased person’s residence as soon as possible after death to make sure items don’t disappear. Here are a few steps you or the personal representative of your estate can take to make sure splitting up your stuff doesn’t split up your family:

  • List the most important or valuable items in your will. While your will could get very long if you tried to list all of your possessions, you may have a few family heirlooms or valuable artworks that you want to stay in the family. It may be easier for all concerned if you say who should get what. But talk with your children or other family members first to determine who values which items most.
  • Direct that certain items be sold. If you have one or more possessions that have much greater value than others, it can be difficult to make your distributions equal. It may make more sense to sell the items of greatest value and distribute the proceeds. For example, in a family whose parents were able to save one painting by a famous artist when they fled Europe during the Holocaust, the children sold the painting and split the proceeds equally, since it would not have been fair for any one of them to have received the painting and none had the resources to buy out the other two. The painting was auctioned at Christie’s and they were all quite happy with the results.
  • Write a memorandum. You can write a list of who should receive what item. If your will references the list, it will be enforceable. Be careful about how you describe each item so that there is no confusion. Unlike your will, this list can be as long as you like, and you can change it without having to go back and redo your will. Send a copy to your lawyer as well as any updates as they occur to ensure the list doesn’t get lost or ignored when the time comes.
  • Give everything away now. Well, perhaps not everything, but the more you disburse during life, the less that will have to be dealt with at death. When you make gifts, make sure that everyone knows about it so that the person receiving the gift is not suspected of having pilfered your jewelry box, for instance. There may be items that you would like to give away, but still want in your house. This is especially true of artwork and furniture. As long as the new owner is agreeable, you can keep these items around. You might want to tape a note to the back or underside explaining that the Rembrandt, for instance, belongs to your daughter, Jane. (Of course, if it is a Rembrandt, you will need to file a gift tax return and a transfer document.) Be aware that for highly-appreciated property, for tax reasons, it may be better not to make gifts during life because they’ll lose the step-up in basis. So check with your estate planning attorney or tax accountant first.
  • Get an appraisal. For the tax reasons referenced above and to guide you in deciding who should get what, it can be useful to know the monetary value of the items you’re giving away, whether during life or at death. This can also be very important for your personal representative and for your heirs in making their decisions.
  • Use a lottery. If you do not made choices regarding your estate plan, your personal representative may want to set up a lottery system for distributing the tangible assets. The representative can put names or numbers into a hat and someone can draw them out to determine the order in which the family members or other heirs will choose items. In order to inform the process, the personal representative should create a list of the most valuable items, including their appraisal value if one has been obtained. If everyone is in the same location at the same time, they can simply take turns. If that’s not possible, the personal representative can add pictures to the list to help identify the items and the beneficiaries can choose online, informing the personal representative of their choices as their turns come up. The order of who chooses can change each round, whether reversing or moving along progressively. Here’s the distinction between these two alternatives:

Reversing: 1,2,3,4,5; 5,4,3,2,1; 1,2,3,4,5
Progressive: 1,2,3,4,5; 2,3,4,5,1; 3,4,5,1,2

  • Bidding. A more complicated structure would be to provide all of the heirs the same number of tokens or points that they can use to bid on the various items. For instance, someone who really wants one painting or photo album more than anything else could put all the tokens on that. Someone who doesn’t care as much would bid fewer tokens. The complication in this approach is what happens after an item is gone. Certainly, anyone who used up his or her tokens “winning” an item in the first round is out, but can those who lost reallocate their tokens to other items? A variation on this theme would be for everyone to rank the items by preference. When there’s no competition, everyone who chose an item first would get that one. When more than one person chose an item as their first choice, they might draw straws, with those losing getting to choose again.

The more you decide who gets what rather than leaving the decisions to your family, the less likely the distribution process will create family strife. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Single? You Still Need an Estate Plan

Many people believe that if they are single, they don’t need a will or other estate planning documents. But estate planning is just as important for single people as it is for couples and families.

Estate planning allows you to ensure that your property will go to the people you want, in the way you want, and when you want. If you do not have an estate plan, the state will decide who gets your property and who will make decisions for you should you become incapacitated, and these aren’t necessarily the choices you would have wanted. An estate plan can also help you save on estate taxes and on court costs for your loved ones.

The most basic estate planning document is a will. If you do not have a will directing who will inherit your assets, your estate will be distributed according to state law. If you are single, most states provide that your estate will go to your children or to other living relatives if you don’t have children. If you have absolutely no living relatives, then your estate will go to the state. You may not want to leave your entire estate to relatives — you may have close friends or charities that you feel should get something. Without a will, you have no way of directing where your property goes.

The next most important document is a durable power of attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in your place for financial purposes if and when 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, you should have a health care proxy. Similar to a power of attorney, a health care proxy allows an individual to appoint someone else to act as their agent, but for medical, as opposed to financial, decisions. Unlike married individuals, unmarried partners or friends usually can’t make decisions for each other without signed authorization.

If you are planning to give away a lot of your money, there are ways to do that efficiently through the annual gift tax exclusion and charitable remainder trusts. Other estate planning documents to consider are a revocable living trust and a living will.

Finally, for singles who are unmarried but have a partner, an estate plan is arguably even more important than for married couples because without one, unmarried couples won’t be able to make end-of-life decisions or inherit from each other.

Don’t think that because you are single, you don’t need an estate plan. Contact your attorney to find out what estate planning documents you need to assure your wishes will be carried out and those you care about will be protected. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.