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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Preserve and Protect Your Documents

Preserving and Protecting Documents Is Part of Healthy Estate Planning

In the unsettled time after a loved one’s death, imagine the added stress on the family if the loved one died without a will or any instructions on distributing his or her assets.  Now, imagine the even greater stress to grieving survivors if they know a will exists but they cannot find it!  It is not enough to prepare a will and other estate planning documents like trusts, health care directives and powers of attorney.  To ensure that your family clearly understands your wishes after death, you must also take good care to preserve and protect all of your estate planning documents.

Did you know that the original, signed version of your will is the only presumed valid version?  If your original signed will cannot be found, the probate court presumes you intended to revoke your will.  If the probate court makes that decision, then your assets will be distributed as if you never had a will in the first place.  However, it is possible that a copy of the will may be allowed to be probated.  Even if a copy can be located, however, additional proof must be given to establish that the original will was never revoked before it may be admitted to probate.

Where should you keep your original signed will?  There are several safe options – the best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances.

You can keep your will at home, in a fireproof safe.  This is the lowest-cost option, since all you need to do is purchase a well-constructed fireproof document safe.  Also, keeping your will at home gives you easy access in case you want to make changes to the document.  There are two main disadvantages to keeping your will at home:

  • You may neglect to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, which increases the risk it will be destroyed by fire, flood, or someone’s intentional or accidental actions.
  • Your will could be difficult to find in the event of your death, unless you give clear instructions to several people on how to find it, which then creates a risk of privacy invasion.

You can keep your will in a safety deposit box.  Most banks have safety deposit boxes of various sizes available to rent for a monthly fee.  Banks, of course, tend to be more secure than private homes, which is one primary advantage.  Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, then after your death, only the Executor of your estate may access the original will.  Thus, the will is strongly protected against alteration or destruction, because family members may have access to a copy but only the Executor will have access to the all-important original.  But be sure to leave written authorization for the person you have named as Executor to have access to your safety deposit box upon showing your death certificate.  Otherwise, it may require a court order to obtain access to your safe deposit box. 

If you do keep your will and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box, try to do so at the same bank where you keep your accounts and inform your executor of its location.  This will streamline the financial accounting process.

Although some law firms have systems for long-term document storage of original wills, keep in mind that the law firm may dissolve before the willmaker’s death.  This can make it difficult to track down your original will.    

You may also be able to store your will and other documents online.  Many large financial institutions have begun offering long-term digital storage of important documents.  However, any electronic version of your original will is – by definition – a copy, not the original.  So, you still must find a safe place to store the original, signed and witnessed will.  Online storage “safes” may be an excellent back-up, but you must still find a secure place to store the paper originals.

At The Dean Law Firm, PLLC, on-line document storage called "Legal Vault" is available for our Preferred Client Maintenance Program members beginning January 1, 2013.  Using Legal Vault, you can access all your estate planning documents via our website.  Legal Vault also allows healthcare providers special access to only your medical documents, keeping your other estate planning documents private.  Please call to inquire about this secure manner to store a back-up copy of your documents. 


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remarried? Protect Your Children With Proper Planning

Remarried? Protect Your Children With Proper Planning

 

If you are married for the first time and are working on your estate plan, the decisions about where the assets go are usually easy. Most parents in that situation want their entire estate to go to the surviving spouse, and upon the death of the surviving spouse, equally to their children. There may be difficult decisions about who will serve as guardians of the children or trustees over the children’s property, but typically it’s easy to decide where the property will go.

However, in today’s society, there are ever-increasing numbers of blended families. There may be children from several marriages involved, making estate planning more complex.  Couples may bring an unequal number of children into the marriage, as well as unequal assets. A spouse may want to ensure that his or her spouse is provided for at death, but may be afraid to leave everything to that spouse out of fear that at the death of the second spouse, that spouse will leave everything to his or her biological children.

Planning can also be complicated when a couple gets married and either of them brings very young children into the marriage. The non-biological parent may raise those children, but unless formally adopted, for estate planning purposes, they are not considered the children of the non-biological parent. Therefore, if that parent dies without a will, the children will not inherit from the stepparent.

There are many options for estate planning for blended families that will treat everyone fairly. First, it’s imperative that parents of blended families have a will in place. If they don’t, it’s almost inevitable that someone will be treated unfairly. Also, it’s tempting for parents of blended families to create wills in which half of everything is left to the husband’s children and half is left to the wife’s children. However, as explained earlier, this approach can also lead to problems.  Moreover, it’s not at all uncommon for a surviving spouse to change his or her will at the death of the first spouse and cut the stepchildren out of the estate plan.

There are two options often recommended for blended families when doing estate planning. The first is to use a trust. Under this plan, all family assets are usually held in trust. Upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has the right to use the assets in the trust for support, with certain limits, such as rights to income or limited use of the trust principal for living expenses. However, the surviving spouse will not be able to change the beneficiaries of the trust, and hence stepchildren could not be disinherited. A second option is for a certain amount of money to be left to children at the death of the first spouse. In that situation, the children will not have to wait for the death of the stepparent in order to inherit. This works well in situations when the children are mature adults and there is sufficient money for the surviving spouse to support herself without relying on the extra funds that are inherited by the children.  One way to accomplish this is through a life insurance policy payable to the children.

Estate planning with blended families can be complex and each situation is unique. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to be aware that it can be a sticky situation for many families. However, with proper planning, many issues that could arise on the death of a stepparent can be avoided completely.

 

 


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How to Avoid Guardianships

Guardianships and How to Avoid Them

 If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship whereby a guardian of the person would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and the guardian of the estate would make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent, someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a guardianship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.

 

 


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Advice for Charitable Giving

Charitable Giving

Many people give to charity during their lives, but unfortunately too few Americans take advantage of the benefits of incorporating charitable giving into their estate plans. By planning ahead, you can save on income and estate taxes, provide a meaningful contribution to the charity of your choice, and even guarantee a steady stream of income throughout your lifetime.

Those who do plan to leave a gift to charity upon their death typically do so by making a simple bequest in a will. However, there are a variety of estate planning tools designed to maximize the benefits of a gift to both the charity and the donor. Donors and their heirs may be better served by incorporating deferred gifts or split-interest gifts, which afford both estate tax and income tax deductions, although for less than the full value of the asset donated.

One of the most common tools is the Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT), which provides the donor or other designated beneficiary the ability to receive income for his or her lifetime, or for a set period of years. At death, or the conclusion of the set period, the “remainder interest” held in the trust is transferred to the charity. The CRT affords the donor a tax deduction based on the calculated remainder interest that will be left to charity. This remainder interest is calculated according to the terms of the trust and the Applicable Federal Rate published monthly by the IRS.

The Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) follows the same basic principle, in reverse. With a CLT, the charity receives the income during the donor’s lifetime, with the remainder interest transferring to the donor’s heirs upon his or her death.

To qualify for tax benefits, both CRTs and CLTs must be established as:

  • A Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT) or a Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT), wherein the income is established at the beginning, as a fixed amount, with no option to make further additions to the trust; or
  • A unitrust which recalculates income as a pre-set percentage of trust assets on an annual basis; which would be either a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT) or a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT).

Another variation is the Net Income Charitable Remainder Unitrust, which provides more flexible payment options for the donor. One advantage to this type of trust is that a shortfall in income one year can be made up the following year.

The Charitable Gift Annuity (CGA) enables the donor to buy an annuity, directly from the charity, which provides guaranteed fixed payments over the donor’s lifetime. As with all annuities, the amount of income provided depends on the donor’s age when the annuity is purchased. The CGA gives donors an immediate income tax deduction, the value of which can be carried forward for up to five years to maximize tax savings.

With several ways to incorporate charitable giving into your estate plan, it’s important that you carefully consider the benefits and consequences, taking into account your assets, income and desired tax benefits. A qualified estate planning attorney and financial advisor can help you determine the best arrangement which will most benefit you and your charity of choice.

 

 

 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Are Debts Left to Heirs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You have a healthcare directive. Now what?

You’ve Finally Done Your Healthcare Directives – Now What?

Healthcare directives can be vitally important, as recent cases, like that of Terry Schiavo, clearly brought to light. These important documents can mean the difference between your health care wishes being carried out or family members fighting over whether a loved one should be placed in a nursing home or removed from life support. Healthcare directives usually include both a healthcare power of attorney and a living will. In a healthcare power of attorney, an individual authorizes another individual to make healthcare decisions for him or her if the individual becomes unable to do so. A living will expresses an individual’s preferences about life support.

Once you have executed your healthcare directives, you may be uncertain as to what to do with them. First, you should make copies of the documents and inform others of their existence. In addition to your health care agent, persons you should consider notifying of the directives include family members and your health care providers. Ideally, the originals should be kept in a place that is both safe and easily accessible.

You may wish to consider using a secure registry service to store your healthcare directives. Such services allow you to access healthcare directives any time and in any location with access to the Internet. Some also allow the documents to be accessed via an automated fax-back service. In addition to providing the healthcare directives, many registries also allow caregivers to access information like emergency contacts, allergies, and other pertinent medical information. If you are a part of our Preferred Client Maintenance Program, this service is provided by Legal Vault beginning January 1, 2013. For all our other clients, you may call to become part of our Preferred Client Maintenance Program and receive this valuable benefit.

You should review your healthcare directives regularly. As individuals get older, their preferences about health care and life support change, and it’s important that your directives reflect your current health care wishes. Of course, life changing events such as marriage, divorce, or the death of a loved one typically require changes in those documents to ensure that the people named in them are still those you wish to make decisions on your behalf.

Moving to another state? It is best to update your healthcare directives to ensure they are valid so your wishes will be carried out in the manner you desire.

Establishing your healthcare directives can spare your family a great deal of anguish if they need to make decisions at a time that is already very emotionally-charged. By keeping the documents in a secure place, providing copies to loved ones, and reviewing them regularly, you can be more certain that your healthcare wishes will be carried out.

 

 


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are your retirement accounts in order?

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.

 

 


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The Dean Law Firm, PLLC assists clients with Estate Planning, Advanced Estate Planning, Planning for Children, Probate/Estate Administration, Elder Law and Civil Appeals in Sugar Land, TX and throughout Houston in Fort Bend County and Harris County.



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