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Irvine, CA Estate Planning Blog

Monday, January 12, 2015

Refusing a Bequest

Most people develop an estate plan as a way to transfer wealth, property and their legacies on to loved ones upon their passing. This transfer, however, isn’t always as seamless as one may assume, even with all of the correct documents in place. What happens if your eldest son doesn’t want the family vacation home that you’ve gifted to him? Or your daughter decides that the classic car that was left to her isn’t worth the headache?

When a beneficiary rejects a bequest it is technically, or legally, referred to as a "disclaimer." This is the legal equivalent of simply saying "I don't want it." The person who rejects the bequest cannot direct where the bequest goes. Legally, it will pass as if the named beneficiary died before you. Thus, who it passes to depends upon what your estate planning documents, such as a will, trust, or beneficiary form, say will happen if the primary named beneficiary is not living.

Now you may be thinking why on earth would someone reject a generous sum of money or piece of real estate? There could be several reasons why a beneficiary might not want to accept such a bequest. Perhaps the beneficiary has a large and valuable estate of their own and they do not need the money. By rejecting or disclaiming the bequest it will not increase the size of their estate and thus, it may lessen the estate taxes due upon their later death.

Another reason may be that the beneficiary would prefer that the asset that was bequeathed pass to the next named beneficiary. Perhaps that is their own child and they decide they do not really need the asset but their child could make better use of it. Another possible reason might be that the asset needs a lot of upkeep or maintenance, as with a vacation home or classic car, and the person may decide taking on that responsibility is simply not something they want to do. By rejecting or disclaiming the asset, the named beneficiary will not inherit the "headache" of caring for, and being liable for, the property.

To avoid this scenario, you might consider sitting down with each one of your beneficiaries and discussing what you have in mind. This gives your loved ones the chance to voice their concerns and allows you to plan your gifts accordingly.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Selecting An Executor Post Mortem

The death of a loved one is a difficult experience no matter the circumstances.  It can be especially difficult when a person dies without a will.  If a person dies without a will and there are assets that need to be distributed, the estate will be subject to the process of administration instead of probate proceedings.

In this case, the decedent’s heirs can select someone to manage the estate, called an administrator instead of executor.  State law will provide who has priority to be appointed as the administrator. Most states’ laws provide that a spouse will have priority and in the event that there is no spouse, the adult children are next in line to serve. However, those that have priority can decline to serve, and the heirs can sign appropriate affidavits or other pleadings to be filed with the court that nominate someone else as the administrator. Once the judge appoints the nominated person they will then have the authority to act and begin estate administration.

In certain circumstances, it may be necessary to change the initially appointed administrator during the administration process. Whether this is advisable depends on many factors. First, the initial administrator will have started the process and will be familiar with what remains to be done. The new administrator will likely be behind in many aspects of the case and may have to review what the prior administrator did. This can cause expenses and delays. Also, it is possible that the attorney representing the initial administrator may not be able to ethically represent the new one, again causing increased expenses and delays. However, if the first administrator is not doing his/her job, the heirs can petition to remove the individual and appoint a new one.

If you are currently involved in a situation where an estate needs to be administered, it is recommended that you speak with an estate planning attorney in your state.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Protecting Your Vacation Home with a Cabin Trust

Many people own a family vacation home--a lakeside cabin, a beachfront condo--a place where parents, children and grandchildren can gather for vacations, holidays and a bit of relaxation. It is important that the treasured family vacation home be considered as part of a thorough estate plan. In many cases, the owner wants to ensure that the vacation home remains within the family after his or her death, and not be sold as part of an estate liquidation.

There are generally two ways to do this: Within a revocable living trust, a popular option is to create a separate sub-trust called a "Cabin Trust" that will come into existence upon the death of the original owner(s). The vacation home would then be transferred into this Trust, along with a specific amount of money that will cover the cost of upkeep for the vacation home for a certain period of time. The Trust should also designate who may use the vacation home (usually the children or grandchildren). Usually, when a child dies, his/her right to use the property would pass to his/her children.

The Cabin Trust should also name a Trustee, who would be responsible for the general management of the property and the funds retained for upkeep of the vacation home. The Trust can specify what will happen when the Cabin Trust money runs out, and the circumstances under which the vacation property can be sold. Often the Trust will allow the children the first option to buy the property.

Another method of preserving the family vacation home is the creation of a Limited Liability Partnership to hold the house. The parents can assign shares to their children, and provide for a mechanism to determine how to pay for the vacation home taxes and upkeep. An LLP provides protection from liability, in case someone is injured on the property.

It is always wise to consult with an estate planning attorney about how to best protect and preserve a vacation home for future generations.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships as Part of Your Estate Plan

Designed to preserve family businesses for future generations, Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) and Family Limited Liability Companies (FLLCs) can help shelter your assets and reduce overall estate and gift taxes.   FLPs are also utilized as an integral part of business succession planning.

A Family Limited Partnership is typically established by married couples who place assets in the FLP and serve as its general partners. They may then grant limited-partnership interests to their children, of up to 99% of the value of the FLP’s assets. When this occurs, two things happen: a) the value of the partnership interests transferred to the children is deemed to be lower than the respective pro-rata value because of minority and marketability discounts and b) the assets are removed from the general partners’ estates.  This allows a transfer of significant assets to the children at lower valuation which results in reduced estate taxes. The general partners continue to maintain control of the FLP and its assets, even though they may own as little as just 1% of the partnership’s valuation.

Limited partners may receive distributions from the FLP which can serve to transfer additional assets from the older generation to younger beneficiaries at more favorable income tax rates.

How Minority and Marketability Interest Discounts Work

Since limited partners do not have the ability to direct or control the day-to-day operations of the partnership, a minority discount can be applied to reduce the value of the limited partnership interests that are transferred.  Furthermore, because the partnership is a closely-held entity and not publicly-traded, a discount can be applied based upon the lack of marketability of the limited partnership interests.  This allows the older generation to leverage the FLP as a vehicle to transfer more wealth to its beneficiaries, while retaining control of the underlying assets.  

With these significant tax benefits, it’s no surprise that many FLPs have attracted scrutiny from the IRS. Many family partnerships have run into issues with tax authorities due to mistakes or outright abuse. Care must be taken to ensure your FLP is properly established and operated.  Specifically, the IRS may look at the following issues when assessing the viability of the FLP:

  • Whether the establishment of the FLP was created solely for tax mitigation objectives. You stand a better chance of avoiding – or surviving – a challenge from the IRS if you can show a legitimate non-tax-related reason the FLP was created. 
     
  • Whether the partnership functions like a business.  Keep your personal assets out of the FLP. You can reasonably expect to transfer closely held stock or interests in commercial real estate into a Family Limited Partnership. However, personal property such as cars or residences may not fare well against an IRS challenge. Similarly, the FLP’s assets should not be used to pay for any personal expenses. The FLP must be a legitimate business entity operated to fulfill business purposes.
     
  • Whether the valuations are based on objective criteria.  Rather than have a partner or family member determine the valuations or discounts for any assets transferred into the FLP, you should have your FLP professionally appraised. A qualified appraiser has a much better chance of withstanding IRS scrutiny.

An FLP can be a powerful planning tool to enable business owners to transfer their stake to the younger generation, while allowing the senior generation to continue conducting operations and mentoring and grooming the young owners.  However, an FLP can be incredibly complex and should only be established with the help of a qualified team of estate planning attorneys, accountants and appraisers.  


Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Your Home Senior-Proof

Let’s face it – it’s tough getting old. The aches, pains, and pills often associated with aging are things that many members of the baby-boomer generation know all too well by now. Though you might not be able to turn back time, you can help an aging loved one enjoy their golden years by giving them a safe, affordable place to call home. If an aging parent is moving in with you and your family, there are many quick fixes for the home that will create a safe environment for seniors.

Start by taking a good look at your floor plan. Are all the bedrooms upstairs? You may want to think about turning a living area on the main floor into a bedroom. Stairs grow difficult with age, especially for seniors with canes or walkers. Try to have everything they need accessible on one floor, including a bed, full bathroom, and kitchen. If the one-floor plan isn’t possible, make sure you have railings installed on both sides of staircases for support. A chair lift is another option for seniors who require walkers or wheelchairs.

Be sure to remove all hazards in hallways and on floors. Get rid of throw rugs – they can pose a serious tripping hazard. Make sure all child or pet toys are kept off the floor. Add nightlights to dark hallways for easy movement during the night when necessary. Also install handrails for support near doorframes and most importantly, in bathrooms.

Handlebars next to toilets and in showers are essential for senior safety. Use traction strips in the shower, which should also be equipped with a seat and removable showerhead. To avoid accidental scalding, set your hot water heater so that temperatures can’t reach boiling. You may also want to consider a raised seat with armrests to place over your toilet, to make sitting and standing easier.

This applies to all other chairs in the house as well. Big, puffy chairs and couches can make it very difficult for seniors to sit and stand. Have living and dining room chairs with stable armrests, and consider an electronic recliner for easy relaxation.

To keep everyone comfortable and help avoid accidents, store all frequently used items in easily accessible places. Keep heavy kitchen items between waist and chest height.

Even with appropriate precautions, not all accidents can be avoided. Purchasing a personal alarm system like Life Alert can be the most important preparation you make for a senior family member. If they are ever left alone, Life Alert provides instant medical attention with the push of a button that they wear at all times.

Amidst all the safety preparations, remember that it’s important to keep the brain healthy, too. Have puzzles, cards, large-print books and magazines, computer games, and simple exercises available to keep seniors of healthy body and mind.

These simple preparations can not only help extend the life of your loved one, but help to make sure their remaining years are happy and healthy.


Monday, November 24, 2014

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.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Should You Withdraw Your Social Security Benefits Early?

Should you withdraw your Social Security benefits early?

You don’t have to be retired to dip into your Social Security benefits which are available to you as early as age 62.  But is the early withdrawal worth the costs?

A quick visit to the U.S. Social Security Administration Retirement Planner website can help you figure out just how much money you’ll receive if you withdraw early. The benefits you will collect before reaching the full retirement age of 66 will be less than your full potential amount.

The reduction of benefits in early withdrawal is based upon the amount of time you currently are from full retirement age. If you withdraw at the earliest point of age 62, you will receive 25% less than your full benefits.  If you were born after 1960, that amount is 30%. At 63, the reduction is around 20%, and it continues to decrease as you approach the age of 66.

Withdrawing early also presents a risk if you think there is a chance you may go back to work. Excess earnings may be cause for the Social Security Administration to withhold some benefits. Though a special rule is in existence that withholding cannot be applied for one year during retired months, regardless of yearly earnings, extended working periods can result in decreased benefits. The withheld benefits, however, will be taken into consideration and recalculated once you reach full retirement age.

If you are considering withdrawing early from your retirement accounts, it is important to consider both age and your particular benefits. If you are unsure of how much you will receive, you can look to your yearly statement from Social Security. Social Security Statements are sent out to everyone over the age of 25 once a year, and should come in the mail about three months before your birthday. You can also request a copy of the form by phone or the web, or calculate your benefits yourself through programs that are available online at www.ssa.gov/retire.

The more you know about your benefits, the easier it will be to make a well-educated decision about when to withdraw. If you can afford to, it’s often worth it to wait. Ideally, if you have enough savings from other sources of income to put off withdrawing until after age 66, you will be rewarded with your full eligible benefits.
 


Monday, November 10, 2014

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift in your will. If you make the gift as a bequest in your will, you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Gift Should Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2011 and 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes. In addition, a person can give $13,000 in 2011 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Can I Get In Trouble With the IRS for Trying to Reduce the Amount of Estate Tax That I Owe?

You’ve likely heard that one of the many benefits of estate planning is reducing the amount of federal, and state, taxes owed upon your passing. While it may seem like estate tax planning must run afoul of IRS rules, with the proper strategies, this is far from the case.

It is very common for an individual to take steps to try to reduce the amount of federal estate taxes that his or her "estate" will be responsible for after the person's death. As you may know, you may pass an unlimited amount of assets to your spouse without incurring any federal estate taxes. You may pass $5.25 million to non-spouse beneficiaries without incurring federal estate tax and if your spouse died before you, and if you have taken certain steps to add your spouse's $5.25 million exemption to your own, you may have $10.5 million that you can pass tax free to non-spouse beneficiaries.

If your estate is still larger than these exemption amounts you should seek out a qualified estate planning attorney. There may be legal, legitimate planning techniques that will help reduce the taxable value of your estate in order to pass more assets to your loved ones upon your death and lessen the impact of the estate taxes. After your death, the duty normally falls on your executor (or perhaps a successor trustee) to file the appropriate tax returns and pay the necessary taxes. Failure to properly plan for potential estate taxes will significantly limit what your executor/trustee will be able to accomplish after your passing.

If you have taken steps to try to reduce the taxes owed, it is possible that the IRS may challenge the reported value or try to throw out the method you used. This does not mean that the executor/trustee will be in trouble; it just means that they will need to be prepared to support their position with the IRS and take it through an audit or even a tax court (or other appropriate court system). In the event of a challenge, a good attorney will be critical to ensure all of the necessary steps are taken.


Monday, October 13, 2014

When Will I Receive My Inheritance?

If you’ve been named a beneficiary in a loved one’s estate plan, you’ve likely wondered how long it will take to receive your share of the inheritance after his or her passing.  Unfortunately, there’s no hard or and fast rule that allows an estate planning attorney to answer this question. The length of time it takes to distribute assets in an estate can vary widely depending upon the particular situation.

Some of the factors that will be involved in determining how long it takes to fully administer an estate include whether the estate must be probated with the court, whether assets are difficult to value, whether the decedent had an ownership interest in real estate located in a state other than the state they resided in, whether your state has a state estate (or inheritance) tax, whether the estate must file a federal estate tax return, whether there are a number of creditors that must be dealt with, and of course, whether there are any disputes about the will or trust and if there may be disagreements among the beneficiaries about how things are being handled by the executor or trustee.

Before the distribution of assets to beneficiaries, the executor and trustee must also make certain to identify any creditors because they have an obligation to pay any legally enforceable debts of the decedent with those assets. If there must be a court filed probate action there may be certain waiting periods, or creditor periods, prescribed by state law that may delay things as well and which are out of the control of the executor of the estate.

In some cases, the executor or trustee may make a partial distribution to the beneficiaries during the pending administration but still hold back sufficient assets to cover any income or estate taxes and other administrative fees. That way the beneficiaries can get some benefit but the executor is assured there are assets still in his or her control to pay those final taxes and expenses. Then, once those are fully paid, a final distribution can be made. It is not unusual for the entire process to take 9 months to 18 months (sometime more) to fully complete.

If you’ve been named a beneficiary and are dealing with a trustee or executor who is not properly handling the estate and you have yet to receive your inheritance, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney for knowledgeable legal counsel.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Turning Over the Keys: Helping Older Drivers Make the Tough Decision

We all want to be in control, to go where we want at our leisure.  As we age, however, our senses and reaction times begin to slow which can make getting behind the wheel increasingly hazardous. It is important to be realistic about the driving abilities of loved ones as they reach a certain stage and to prepare accordingly. Not only will it keep seniors safe, but planning ahead will help them financially as they make other arrangements for transportation.

The first step is to reduce the need to drive. Find ways to bring the things they need right to them, like ordering groceries online for delivery and encouraging in-home appointments. Suggest that they invite friends and family over for regular visits instead of going out. They may be surprised by how many things are possible from the comfort of their own home.

For the times your loved ones need to, or want to, venture elsewhere, look into other transportation options. Although there is usually no need to quit driving all at once, look to family, friends, taxis, and public transportation when you can, especially for longer trips. Use the money you’ve been saving, along with what would have been spent on gas, on alternate modes of transportation. Their town may even have designated senior transportation services. 

The time to start making this transition may be sooner than you or your loved ones think. Don’t wait until an accident leaves them with no alternative. It may be time to start talking about limiting driving if they report noticing subtle difficulties, like trouble reading traffic signs or delayed breaking. Keep an eye out for small dings in your loved one’s car or surrounding items, like the mailbox or garage door, along with slower response time or difficulty finding their way around familiar territory. Ask them to watch for these things as well.

Asking a loved one to turn over their keys can be tough but with an open dialogue, the right support system and reasonable alternatives in place to ensure that they can continue to live an active lifestyle, a smooth transition is feasible.  


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Law Offices Of Michael J. Wittick, A Professional Law Corporation is located in Irvine, CA and serves clients with estate and wealth preservation matters throughout Irvine, Lake Forest, Laguna Woods, Laguna Hills, Foothill Ranch, Tustin, Aliso Viejo and the surrounding areas.



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