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Irvine, CA Estate Planning Blog

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Online and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Estate Planning

With the number of online and do-it-yourself (DIY) legal providers continuing to grow, some of individuals may be wondering if they could do their estate planning themselves. The advertising is seductive: attorneys use similar forms, the cost is significantly less than hiring an attorney, and many of these websites and kits are created by attorneys. In addition, most people think their estates are not complicated, and many think they are just as smart as (or smarter than) professionals.

Most professionals know that DIY estate planning can be very dangerous. While completing the forms may seem easy and straightforward, a single mistake or omission can have far reaching complications that only come to light after the person has died.


Read more . . .


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Preparing Your Family for an Emergency during School Hours

Every family should establish a clear plan to handle an emergency that occurs during school hours. Unfortunately, many parents mistakenly believe that filling out the school’s emergency card is sufficient. Sadly, this practice falls far short of what is truly necessary to protect your children in the event something tragic happens to you during the school day.

Even with a fully-completed school emergency card, your children could still spend time “in the system.” The emergency card only gives permission for certain named individuals to pick up your children if they are sick, but does not authorize them to take short-term custody if one or both parents are killed or become incapacitated. Without having alternate arrangements in place, children in this situation would likely end up spending at least some time with social services.

Parents should create an emergency plan, to avoid confusion and ensure their children are in the right hands if tragedy strikes. With just a few simple steps, parents can rest easy knowing their children will be cared for in the manner they choose.

Name Temporary Guardians
Parents should name short-term guardians who have legal permission to care for their children until a parent or other long-term guardian is available to take over. This individual should be someone who lives nearby and can aid and comfort your child in an emergency. You can establish this temporary guardianship arrangement by completing a temporary guardianship agreement or authorization, preferably, with the assistance of a qualified attorney.

Make Sure the Temporary Guardians are Also Named on the School Emergency Card
In addition to listing neighbors or friends who are authorized to pick up your children from school, .it is also vital that you list the full contact information for your authorized temporary guardians. In the event of a true emergency, this guardian can step in immediately to care for your children. Otherwise, your kids may wind up in the custody of social services until a parent or other named legal guardian can be located.

Ensure the Babysitter Knows the Plan if You Don’t Return Home
Make sure you give your babysitters detailed instructions regarding who to call or what to do in the event you are unexpectedly absent. Without this information, many babysitters will panic and contact the police. Involving law enforcement will also involve social services who may step in and take temporary custody of your children until a long-term guardian or parent arrives.

These three simple steps will make all the difference for your children and their caregivers in the event the unthinkable happens. In times of tragedy, the last thing you want is for your little ones to end up in the system, rather than the loving arms of a trusted friend or relative.
 


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Considering Online Estate Planning? Think Twice

The recent proliferation of online estate planning document services has attracted many individuals to prepare their own estate documents in what appears to be a low-cost solution. However, this focus on price over value could mean your wishes will not be carried out and, unfortunately, nobody will know there is a problem until it is too late and you are no longer around to clean up the mess.

Probate, trusts and intestate succession (when someone dies without leaving a will) are governed by  laws which vary from state to state, as well as federal laws pertaining to inheritance and tax issues. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, and failure to adhere to all of them could invalidate your estate planning documents. Many online document services offer standardized legal forms for common estate planning tools including wills, trusts or powers of attorney. However, it is impossible to draft a legal document that covers all variations from one state to another, and using a form or procedure not specifically designed to comply with the laws in your jurisdiction could invalidate the entire process.

Another risk involves the process by which the documents you purchased online are executed and witnessed or notarized. These requirements vary, and if your state’s signature and witness requirements are not followed exactly at the time the will or other documents are executed, they could be found to be invalid. Of course, this finding would only be made long after you have passed, so you cannot express your wishes or revise the documents to be in compliance.

Additionally, the online document preparation process affords you absolutely no specific advice about what is best for you and your family. An estate planning attorney can help your heirs avoid probate altogether, maximize tax savings, and arrange for seamless transfer of assets through other means, including titling property in joint tenancy or establishing “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries for certain assets, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts or vehicles. In many states, living trusts are the recommended vehicle for transferring assets, allowing the estate to avoid probate. Trusts are also advantageous in that they protect the privacy of you and your family; they are not public records, whereas documents filed with the court in a probate proceeding can be viewed by the public. There are other factors to consider, as well, which can only be identified and addressed by an attorney; no online resource can flag all potential concerns and provide you with appropriate recommendations.

By implementing the correct plan now, you will save your loved ones time, frustration and potentially a great deal of money. In most cases, proper estate planning that is tailored to your specific situation can avoid probate altogether, and ensure the transfer of your property happens quickly and with a minimum amount of paperwork. If your estate is large, it may be subject to inheritance tax unless the proper estate planning measures are put in place. A qualified estate planning attorney can provide you with recommendations that will preserve as much of your estate as possible, so it can be distributed to your beneficiaries. And that’s something no website can deliver.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Coordinating Property Ownership and Your Estate Plan

When planning your estate, you must consider how you hold title to your real and personal property. The title and your designated beneficiaries will control how your real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and investments are distributed upon your death, regardless of whether there is a will or trust in place and potentially with a result that you never intended.

One of the most important steps in establishing your estate plan is transferring title to your assets. If you have created a living trust, it is absolutely useless if you fail to transfer the title on your accounts, real estate or other property into the trust. Unless the assets are formally transferred into your living trust, they will not be subject to the terms of the trust and will be subject to probate.

Even if you don’t have a living trust, how you hold title to your property can still help your heirs avoid probate altogether. This ensures that your assets can be quickly transferred to the beneficiaries, and saves them the time and expense of a probate proceeding. Listed below are three of the most common ways to hold title to property; each has its advantages and drawbacks, depending on your personal situation.

Tenants in Common: When two or more individuals each own an undivided share of the property, it is known as a tenancy in common. Each co-tenant can transfer or sell his or her interest in the property without the consent of the co-tenants. In a tenancy in common, a deceased owner’s interest in the property continues after death and is distributed to the decedent’s heirs. Property titled in this manner is subject to probate, unless it is held in a living trust, but it enables you to leave your interest in the property to your own heirs rather than the property’s co-owners.

Joint Tenants:  In joint tenancy, two or more owners share a whole, undivided interest with right of survivorship. Upon the death of a joint tenant, the surviving joint tenants immediately become the owners of the entire property. The decedent’s interest in the property does not pass to his or her beneficiaries, regardless of any provisions in a living trust or will. A major advantage of joint tenancy is that a deceased joint tenant’s interest in the property passes to the surviving joint tenants without the asset going through probate. Joint tenancy has its disadvantages, too. Property owned in this manner can be attached by the creditors of any joint tenant, which could result in significant losses to the other joint tenants. Additionally, a joint tenant’s interest in the property cannot be sold or transferred without the consent of the other joint tenants.

Community Property with Right of Survivorship: Some states allow married couples to take title in this manner. When property is held this way, a surviving spouse automatically inherits the decedent’s interest in the property, without probate.

Make sure your estate planning attorney has a list of all of your property and exactly how you hold title to each asset, as this will directly affect how your property is distributed after you pass on. Automatic rules governing survivorship will control how property is distributed, regardless of what is stated in your will or living trust.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Estate Planning for Second Marriages


In first marriages, the couple generally has the same goals when it comes to their estate planning: take care of the surviving spouse for as long as he or she lives, then whatever is left will go to the children. They may own many of their assets jointly and, at the death of the first spouse, more than likely everything will go to the surviving spouse just as they had planned.

But second marriages (after divorce or death of the first spouse) are different. There may be his children, her children and sometimes their children. Each spouse probably has assets they brought into this marriage, and they will want those to go to their own children after they die.
Read more . . .


Monday, April 25, 2016

The ‘Sandwich Generation’ – Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

“The sandwich generation” is the term given to adults who are raising children and simultaneously caring for elderly or infirm parents.  Your children are one piece of “bread,” your parents are the other piece of “bread,” and you are “sandwiched” into the middle.

Caring for parents at the same time as you care for your children, your spouse and your job is exhausting and will stretch every resource you have.  And what about caring for yourself? Not surprisingly, most sandwich generation caregivers let self-care fall to the bottom of the priorities list which may impair your ability to care for others.

Following are several tips for sandwich generation caregivers.

  • Hold an all-family meeting regarding your parents. Involve your parents, your parents’ siblings, and your own siblings in a detailed conversation about the present and future.  If you can, make joint decisions about issues like who can physically care for your parents, who can contribute financially and how much, and who should have legal authority over your parents’ finances and health care decisions if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.  Your parents need to share all their financial and health care information with you in order for the family to make informed decisions.  Once you have that information, you can make a long-term financial plan.
  • Hold another all-family meeting with your children and your parents.  If you are physically or financially taking care of your parents, talk about this honestly with your children.  Involve your parents in the conversation as well.  Talk – in an age-appropriate way – about the changes that your children will experience, both positive and challenging.
  • Prioritize privacy.  With multiple family members living under one roof, privacy – for children, parents, and grandparents – is a must.  If it is not be feasible for every family member to have his or her own room, then find other ways to give everyone some guaranteed privacy.  “The living room is just for Grandma and Grandpa after dinner.”  “Our teenage daughter gets the downstairs bathroom for as long as she needs in the mornings.”
  • Make family plans.  There are joys associated with having three generations under one roof.  Make the effort to get everyone together for outings and meals.  Perhaps each generation can choose an outing once a month.
  • Make a financial plan, and don’t forget yourself.  Are your children headed to college?  Are you hoping to move your parents into an assisted living facility?  How does your retirement fund look?  If you are caring for your parents, your financial plan will almost certainly have to be revised.  Don’t leave yourself and your spouse out of the equation.  Make sure to set aside some funds for your own retirement while saving for college and elder health care.
  • Revise your estate plan documents as necessary.  If you had named your parents guardians of your children in case of your death, you may need to find other guardians.  You may need to set up trusts for your parents as well as for your children.  If your parent was your power of attorney, you may have to designate a different person to act on your behalf.
  • Seek out and accept help.  Help for the elderly is well organized in the United States.  Here are a few governmental and nonprofit resources:
    • www.benefitscheckup.org – Hosted by the National Council on Aging, this website is a one-stop shop for determining which federal, state and local benefits your parents may qualify for
    • www.eldercare.gov – Sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging
    • www.caremanager.org  -- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
    • www.nadsa.org – National Adult Day Services Association

Monday, April 18, 2016

When is a person unfit to make a will?

Testamentary capacity refers to a person’s ability to understand and execute a will. As a general rule, most people who are over the age of eighteen are thought to be competent to make and sign the will. They must be able to understand that they are signing the will, they must understand the nature of the property being affected by the will, and they must remember and understand who is affected by the will. These are simple burdens to meet. However, there are a number of reasons a person might challenge a will based on testamentary capacity.

If the testator of a will suffers from paranoid delusions, he or she may make changes to a testamentary document based on beliefs that have no basis in reality. If a disinherited heir can show that a testator suffered from such insane delusions when the changes were made, he or she can have the will invalidated. Similarly a person suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may be declared unfit to make a will. If a person suffers from a mental or physical disability that prevents them from understanding from understanding that a will is an instrument that is meant to direct how assets are to be distributed in the event of his or her death, that person is not capable of executing a valid will.

It is not entirely uncommon that disinherited heirs complain that a caretaker or a new acquaintance brainwashed the testator into changing his or her will. This is not an accusation of incapacity to make the will, but rather a claim of undue influence. If the third party suggested making the changes, if the third party threatened to withhold care if the will was not changed, or if the third party did anything at all to produce a will that would not be the testator’s intent absent that influence, the will may be set aside for undue influence. Regardless of the reason for the challenge, these determinations will only be made after the testator’s death if the will is presented to a court and challenged. For this reason, it is especially important for the testator to be as thorough as possible in making an estate plan and making sure that any changes are made with the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Should a Power of Attorney be a part of my Estate Plan?

A durable power of attorney is an important part of an estate plan. It provides that, in the event of disability or incapacitation, a preselected agent can be granted power over the affairs of the individual signing the document. This power can be limited to specific decisions, like the decision to continue life sustaining treatment, or it can be much broader in scope to allow the agent power over the individual’s financial dealings.

Estate planning is meant to prepare for contingencies beyond an individual’s control. A traumatic accident could leave an individual without the ability to manage his or her own financial affairs. Debilitating diseases, like Alzheimer’s, can affect a person’s ability to make sound decisions for him or herself. In these scenarios, someone must be appointed to do make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated individual. Preparing a durable power of attorney as a part of an estate plan accomplishes three things. First, it gives the power of appointment to the individual, instead of to a judge. Second, it avoids the need for a potentially expensive court proceeding necessary to make that appointment. Finally, a power of attorney may be used to respond to time sensitive issues without waiting for a court hearing to grant an agent the power to act.

A power of attorney provides much flexibility for the individual signing it. It can take effect only upon disability, or right away, regardless of disability. It can specify what funds may or may not be used for. If a person does not want to live in an assisted living facility, he or she can make sure that money from his or her own bank accounts is not used for those purposes. Different assets can be managed by different agents. The power of attorney can give an agent power to distribute assets as gifts on a specific schedule to collaborate with an existing estate plan. The level of detail and amount of instruction that is possible as a part of the document is unlimited. It will always be quicker and more economical than a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, and it will always serve the disabled person’s interests better than the broad powers granted to an individual by a court.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Ensuring Income Tax Deferral for Retirement Plan Beneficiaries


Some of the most generous provisions of the tax code are those that permit beneficiaries of IRAs and other qualified retirement plans to defer income tax on the plans until time of withdrawal. This allows the IRA or qualified plan to grow significantly more than if it were subject to tax on gains each year.

Another equally generous provision of the tax code permits beneficiaries to withdraw only a minimum amount from IRAs or qualified plans each year. By taking only these “required minimum distributions” a beneficiary can stretch out distributions over the better part of his or her lifetime, resulting in further deferral of income tax on the amount remaining in the plan.

Unfortunately, most beneficiaries fail to take advantage of this latter provision and withdraw all of the IRA or qualified plan funds immediately, thereby losing the significant tax advantages of tax-deferred growth.
Read more . . .


Monday, March 28, 2016

What are the powers and responsibilities of an executor?

An executor is responsible for the administration of an estate. The executor’s signature carries the same weight of the person whose estate is being administered. He or she must pay the deceased’s debts and then distribute the remaining assets of the estate. If any of the assets of the estate earn money, an executor must manage those assets responsibly. The process of doing so can be intimidating for an individual who has never done so before.

After a person passes away, the executor must locate the will and file it with the local probate office. Copies of the death certificate should be obtained and sent to banks, creditors, and relevant government agencies like social security. He or she should set up a new bank account in the name of the estate. All income received for the deceased, such as remaining paychecks, rents from investment properties, and the collection of outstanding loans receivable, should go into this separate bank account. Bills that need to be paid, like mortgage payments or tax bills, can be paid from this account. Assets should be maintained for the benefit of the estate’s heirs. An executor is under no obligation to contribute to an estate’s assets to pay the estate’s expenses.

An inventory of assets should be compiled and maintained by the executor at all times. An accounting of the estate’s assets, debts, income, and expenses should also be available upon request. If probate is not necessary to distribute the assets of an estate, the executor can elect not to enter probate. Assets may need to be sold in order to be distributed to the heirs. Only the executor can transfer title on behalf of an estate. If an estate becomes insolvent, the executor must declare bankruptcy on behalf of the estate. After debts are paid and assets are distributed, an executor must dispose of any property remaining. He or she may be required to hire an attorney and appear in court on behalf of the estate if the will is challenged. For all of this trouble, an executor is permitted to take a fee from the estate’s assets. However, because the executor of an estate is usually a close family member, it is not uncommon for the executor to waive this fee. If any of these responsibilities are overwhelming for an executor, he or she may elect not to accept the position, or, if he or she has already accepted, may resign at any time.


Monday, March 21, 2016

How to Calculate Estate Tax

In order to predict how much your estate will have to pay in taxes, one must first determine the value of the estate. To determine this, many assets might have to be appraised at fair market value. The estate includes all assets including real estate, cash, securities, stocks, bonds, business interests, loans receivable, furnishings, jewelry, and other valuables.

Once your net worth is established, you can subtract liabilities like mortgages, credit cards, other legitimate debts, funeral expenses, medical bills, and the administrative cost to settle your estate including attorney, accounting and appraisal fees, storage and shipping fees, insurances, and court fees. The administrative expenses will likely total roughly 5% of the total estate. Any assets that is bequeathed to charity through a trust escapes taxation, and the value of those assets must be subtracted from the total. Any assets transferred to a surviving spouse are not subject to taxation as long as your spouse is a US citizen.

If the net worth of an estate is less than the Federal and state exemptions, no taxes must be paid. However, the value of assets over the exemptions will be taxed. The amount over the exemptions is referred to as the taxable estate. A testator’s assets are taxed by the state in which the will is probated. Taxes paid by the estate to the state may be deducted for Federal tax purposes. The Federal exemption was $5.43 million in 2015 and is slated to increase in 2016. The top Federal estate tax rate in 2015 was 40%.

If an estate earns money while it is being administered and distributed, for example, if real estate is rented or businesses continue to operate, it will be necessary for the estate to complete a tax return and pay taxes on the income it receives. The net income of the estate can be added to the taxable portion of the estate if it is over the federal or state exemption. It is important to be aware that the laws surrounding estate taxes change frequently and require seasoned professionals to navigate, and to notify you if changes in the laws will affect your estate plan. 


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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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