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Irvine, CA Estate Planning Blog

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. 


Monday, March 14, 2016

How does life insurance fit into my estate plan?

Life insurance can be an integral part of an estate plan. Policies can be set up to be paid directly to the beneficiary, without the need to pass through the estate, and without the need for any taxes to be paid. Having a life insurance policy ensures that some assets will be liquid, so that debts and expenses can be paid quickly and easily without the need to dispose of assets. Beneficiaries can be changed at any time as can the benefit amount. The policy can be used to accumulate savings if the plan is surrendered before death. Life insurance policies, especially those purchased later in life, can pay out significantly more than what was invested into them. There are many benefits to purchasing a life insurance policy as part of an estate plan.

An attorney can set up a life insurance trust to help avoid estate taxes. A life insurance trust must be irrevocable, cannot be managed by the policy holder, and must be in place at least three years before the death of the policy holder. Any money received from the life insurance trust is not a part of the taxable estate. The need for this is rare as the exemption for estate taxes is currently almost five and a half million dollars, but it is a useful tool for some nonetheless.

There is a limit to how much life insurance an individual is permitted to purchase. A person may carry a multiple of his or her gross income which reduces with age. A twenty five year old can buy a policy worth thirty times his or her annual income. A sixty five year old may only purchase ten times his or her annual income worth of life insurance. This is an important factor to consider when deciding whether life insurance should be a part of your estate plan.

Life insurance as a part of estate planning is a complicated issue. It makes sense to consult with an estate attorney and a tax professional before meeting with an insurance broker. Both can help an individual understand the benefits of insurance over other means of transferring assets.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Caution: Writing Your Own Deed to Avoid Probate Can Lead to Unintended Consequences

One common way to avoid probate of real estate after the owner dies is to hold the title to the property in joint names with rights of survivorship with children or other beneficiaries.  This is accomplished by adding the names of the children and certain legal terms to a new deed for the property and then recording it in the applicable public land records. 

Many people believe that they do not need to pay an attorney to help them prepare and record the new deed.  Instead, they think that a deed form can simply be downloaded from the internet or obtained from a book that can then be easily filled out and recorded.  But deeds are in fact legal documents that must comply with state law in order to be valid.  In addition, in most states, property will not pass to the other owners listed in a deed without probate unless certain specific legal terms are used in the deed.

How is a Defective Deed or an Invalid Deed Corrected? 

If the problems with a defective deed or an invalid deed are discovered before the owner dies, then the problems can be addressed by preparing and recording a “corrective deed” in the applicable public land records.  This should only be done with the assistance of an attorney.

Unfortunately, many times the problems with a defective deed or an invalid deed are not discovered until after the owner dies.  If this is the case, then the problems cannot be fixed with a corrective deed since the deceased owner is unable to sign the corrective deed.  Instead, the property will most likely need to be probated in order to fix the problems with the title.  Aside from probate taking time and costing money for legal fees and court expenses, until the problems with the title are sorted out in probate court, heirs will not be able to sell the property.  Or, worse yet, the property may be inherited by someone the owner had intended to disinherit when they prepared and recorded their own deed.

What Should You Do?

If you want to add your children or other beneficiaries to your deed in order to avoid probate, and you think you can save a few bucks by using a form you find on the internet or in a book, think again.  Deeds are legal documents that have very specific requirements and are governed by different laws in each state (in other words, a deed that is valid in California may not necessarily be valid in Florida). 

If you want your home or other real estate to pass to your children or other beneficiaries without probate, then seek the advice of an attorney who is familiar with the probate and real estate laws of the state where your property is located. This will insure that the deed will be valid and your property will in fact avoid probate and pass to your intended heirs.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Costs Associated with Dying Without a Will

When someone dies without a will, it is known as dying intestate.  In such cases, state law (of the state in which the person resides) governs how the person's estate is administered. In most states, the individual's assets are split -- with one third of the estate going to the spouse and all surviving children splitting the rest. For people who leave behind large estates, unless they have established trusts or other tax avoidance protections, there may be a tremendous tax liability, including both estate and inheritance tax.

For just about everyone, the cost of having a will prepared by a skilled and knowledgeable attorney is negligible when compared to the cost of dying intestate,  since there are a number of serious consequences involved in dying without a proper will in place.

Legal Consequences

The larger your estate, the more catastrophic the consequences of dying intestate will be. If you die without a will, the freedom to decide how your property will be divided will be taken from you and the state in which you reside will divide your assets.

Not only will you not be able to decide on the distribution of your property, but a stranger will be making personal, familial decisions. This may be divisive among your family members; instead of leaving your loved ones in peace, you may leave them engaged in bitter disputes over a family heirloom or even a simple memento. This can be especially true in situations where there are children from a previous marriage.

Tax Consequences

In addition to the legal and personal problems associated with dying intestate, the tax results can be severe as well. This is particularly true for clients who have not consulted with an estate planning attorney in order to protect themselves through tax avoidance methods. Both the state and federal governments can tax the transfer of property and an inheritance tax may be imposed on the property you have left to your heirs.

The most effective way to avoid all of these negative tax consequences is to create a will with a competent attorney. Your lawyer will help you to choose a proper executor (the person who will administer your estate, distribute your property and pay your debts), and will assist you in finding ways to limit your tax liability. There are several ways your attorney can help you to do this:

  • By gifting some of those you want to inherit before you die
  • By creating one or several trusts
  • By purchasing a life insurance policy
  • By buying investments in your loved one's name

These methods will ensure that your loved ones receive the assets you desire them to have, while simultaneously protecting them from possibly enormous tax burdens after you pass.

For those who have no family, dying without a will can be even more troublesome and costly, since their entire fortunes can be left to the state. If a genealogical search doesn't turn up any blood relatives, all of your assets will be claimed by the government. This means that any individual, group, organization or charity you wished to endow will receive nothing.

It is never easy to think of one's own mortality, but it is even more painful to contemplate leaving a messy, uncomfortable situation behind when you pass. By engaging the services of an excellent estate planning attorney, who will help you fashion a legally binding, precisely designed document,  you can make sure that your loved ones are well taken care of and that your final wishes are respected and implemented.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Why shouldn't I use a form from the internet for my will?

In this computer age, when so many tasks are accomplished via the internet -- including banking, shopping, and important business communications -- it may seem logical to turn to the internet when creating a legal document such as a will . Certainly, there are several websites advertising how easy and inexpensive it is to do this. Nonetheless, most of us know that, while the internet can be a wonderful tool, it also contains a tremendous amount of erroneous, misleading, and even dangerous information.

In most cases, as with so many do-it-yourself projects, creating a will most often ends up being a more efficient, less expensive process if you engage the services of a qualified attorney.  Just as most of us are not equipped to do our own plumbing repairs or automotive repairs, most of us do not have the background or experience to create our own legal documents, even with the help of written directions.

Situations that Require an Attorney for Will Creation

 In certain cases, the need for an estate planning attorney is inarguable. These include situations in which:

  • Your estate is large enough to make estate planning guidance necessary
  • You want to disinherit your legal spouse
  • You have concerns that someone may contest your will
  • You worry that someone will claim your mind wasn't sound at the signing

Mistakes and Omissions 

It has always been possible to write a will all by yourself, even before the advent of the typewriter, let alone the computer.  Such a document, however, is unlikely to deal with the complexities of modern life.  Many estate planning attorneys have seen, and often been asked to repair, wills that have mistakes or significant omissions. These experts have also become aware of situations in which the survivors of the deceased wind up in court, spending thousands of dollars to contest ambiguously worded or incomplete wills. Without legal guidance from a competent estate planning attorney, creating a "boxtop" will can result in tremendous financial and emotional risk.

Evidence that Online Wills Are Not Foolproof

Evidence that many other complications can arise when an individual creates a will using generalized online directions can be found in the following facts: 

  • Each state has its own rules (e.g. requiring differing numbers of disinterested party signatures)
  • Even uncontested wills can remain in probate if not executed in an exacting fashion
  • Estate planning attorneys find legal software programs inadequate
  • Even legal websites themselves recommend bringing in an attorney in all but the very simplest cases
  • Some legal websites provide inexpensive monthly legal consultations with attorneys to protect their client and themselves

Areas that Frequently Cause Problems 

Self-constructed wills often become problematic when the testator:

  • Names an executor who has no financial or legal knowledge
  • Leaves a bequest to a pet  (legally, you must leave the bequest to an appointed caretaker)
  • Puts conditions on payouts to an that are difficult, or impossible, to enforce
  • Makes unusual end-of-life decisions or puts living will information into the will
  • Designates guardians for children, but neglects to name successor guardians
  • Neglects to coordinate beneficiary designations where, for example, the will and  insurance policy designations contradict one another
  • Leaves funeral instructions into the will since the document will most likely not be read until after the funeral has taken place
  • Leaves inexact or ambiguous instructions dealing with blended families
  • Neglects to mention small items in the will which, though of small financial value, are meaningful to loved ones and may cause contention

In order to ensure that you leave your assets in the hands of those you wish, and to avoid leaving your loved ones with bitter disputes and expensive probate costs, it  is always wise to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when making a will.  In this area, as in so many others, it is best, and safest, to make use of those with expertise in the field.


Monday, February 8, 2016

What is an Estate Tax?

While the terms "estate tax" and "inheritance tax" are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Let's try to clarify the difference.

Estate Tax

Estate tax is based on the net value of the deceased owner's property.  An estate tax is applied to these assets when they are transferred to the beneficiary. It is important to remember that an estate tax doesn't have anything to do with the beneficiary or that person's resources.

Federal estate tax only affects individuals who die with more than $5.45[s1]  million in assets and individuals with such large estates can leave that amount to their beneficiaries without being subjected to a  tax liability. Ninety-nine percent of the population will not owe federal estate tax upon their death.

In most circumstances, no federal estate tax is levied against spouses. As of the Supreme Court's recent ruling, this includes gay married couples as well as heterosexual couples. Federal estate taxes can, however, be charged if the spouse who is the beneficiary is not a citizen of the U.S. In such cases, though, a personal estate tax exemption can be used.  Even where remaining spouses have no liability for federal estate tax, they may be charged with state taxes in some states, taxes which cannot be avoided unless the couple relocates.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax, as distinguished from estate tax, is imposed by state governments and the tax rate depends on the person receiving the property, and, in some locations, on how much that person receives. Inheritance tax can also vary depending upon the relationship between the testator and the benefactor. In Pennsylvania, for example, a spouse is not taxed at all; a lineal descendant (the child of the deceased) is taxed at 4.5 percent; a sibling is taxed at 12 percent, and anyone else must pay 15 percent.

Exemptions

There are exemptions that can reduce the amount of inheritance tax owed by significant amounts, but it is important that there be proper documentation of such exemptions for them to be applicable. Any part of the inheritance that is donated to charity does not require inheritance tax payment on the part of the beneficiary. Because of the inherent complexities of tax law and the variations from state to state, working with a tax attorney who has expertise with state tax laws s the best way to make sure you take advantage of any possible tax exemptions or avoidance.

 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Potential Problems with Beneficiary Designations

Many clients use beneficiary designations, and for good reason. Some significant assets, including life insurance policies, IRAs, retirement plans and even bank accounts, allow a beneficiary to be named. It’s free, it’s easy, and, when the owner dies, these assets are designed to be paid directly to the individual(s) named as beneficiary, outside of probate.

But that is not always what happens. For example:

  • If your beneficiary is incapacitated when you die, the court will probably have to take control of the funds. That’s because most life insurance companies and other financial institutions will not knowingly pay to an incompetent person; they may insist on court supervision.
  • If you name a minor as a beneficiary, you are probably setting up a court guardianship for the child. Life insurance companies and other financial institutions will not knowingly pay these funds directly to a minor, nor will they pay to another person for the child, not even to a parent. They do not want the potential liability and will usually require proof of a court-supervised guardianship.
  • If you name “my estate” as beneficiary, the court will have to determine who that is. The funds will have to go through probate so they can be distributed along with your other assets.
  • If your beneficiary dies before you (or you both die at the same time) and you have not named a secondary beneficiary, the proceeds will have to go through probate so they can be distributed with the rest of your assets.

Even if the funds are paid to the named beneficiary, things may not work out as the owner intended. For example:

  • Some people just cannot handle large sums of money. They may spend irresponsibly, be influenced by a spouse or friend, make bad investment choices, or lose the money to an ex-spouse or creditor. If the beneficiary receives a tax-deferred account, he/she may decide to “cash out” and negate your careful planning for continued long-term tax-deferred growth.
  • If you name someone as a beneficiary with the “understanding” that the funds will be used to care for another or will be “held” until a later time, you have no guarantee that will happen. The money may just be too tempting.
  • If the person you name as beneficiary is receiving government benefits (for example, a child or parent who requires special care), you could be jeopardizing their ability to continue to receive these benefits.
  • If your estate is larger, your choice of beneficiary could limit your tax planning options, causing serious tax consequences for your family.

Beneficiary designations can be quite useful, but they need to be considered as part of an overall estate plan. Naming a trust as beneficiary will generally prevent the problems described above, and by bringing all of the client’s assets together under one plan, you can be sure that each beneficiary will receive the amount the client wants them to have—something that can be difficult to accomplish with multiple designations.

Making a Retirement Plan Trust a designated beneficiary of a tax deferred retirement plan is an excellent choice to insure the beneficiaries (usually children) will not cash out the benefits and destroy the huge benefit of tax deferred growth and to acquire asset protection for the beneficiary in an accumulation trust.

When meeting with a potential client, or reviewing a client’s existing plan, it is important for the estate planning professional to see all beneficiary designations. Correcting any designations now, and making sure the client understands them, will help to prevent significant future problems.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

The role of an executor is to effectuate a deceased person’s wishes as declared in a will after he or she has passed on. The executor’s responsibilities include the distribution of assets according to the will, the maintenance of assets until the will is settled, and the paying of estate bills and debts. An old joke says that you should choose an enemy to perform the task because it is such a thankless job, even though the executor may take a percentage of the estate’s assets as a fee. The following issues should be considered when choosing an executor for one's estate.

Competency: The executor of an estate will be going through financial and legal documents and transferring documents from the testator to the beneficiaries. If there are legal proceedings, the executor must make all necessary court appearances. There is no requirement that a testator have any financial or legal training, but familiarity with these areas does avoid the intimidation felt by lay people, and potentially saves money on professional fees.

Trustworthiness: The signature of an executor is equivalent to that of the testator of an estate. The executor has full control over all of an estate’s assets. He or she will be required to go through all of the papers of the deceased to confirm what assets are available to be distributed. The temptation to transfer assets into the executor's own name always exists, particularly when there is a large estate. It is important to choose a person with integrity who will resist this temptation. It makes sense to utilize an individual who is an heir to fill the role to alleviate this concern.

Availability: The work of collecting rents, maintaining property, and paying debts can take more than a few hours a week. Selecting an executor with significant obligations to work or family may cause problems if he or she does not have the time available to devote to the task. If an executor must travel great distances to address issues that arise, there will be more of a time commitment necessary, not to mention greater expenses for the estate.

Family dynamics: Selection of the wrong person to act as executor can create resentment and hostility among an estate’s heirs. A testator should be aware of how family members interact with one another and avoid picking someone who may provoke conflict. Even the perception of impropriety can lead to a lawsuit, which will serve to take money out of the estate’s coffers and delay the legitimate distribution of the estate. 


Monday, January 18, 2016

Can an Individual be held responsible for his or her deceased loved one's debts?

When a loved one dies, an already difficult experience can be made much more stressful if that loved one held a significant amount of debt. Fortunately, the law addresses how an individual’s debts can be paid after he or she is deceased.

When a person dies, his or her assets are gathered into an estate. Some assets are not included in this process. Assets owned jointly between the deceased and another person pass directly to the other person automatically. If there are liens on the property at that time, they will stay on the property, but no new liens can be placed on the property for debts in the name of the deceased. Similarly, debt jointly in the name of the deceased and another party may continue to be collected from the other party. In community property states, all assets and debts are the joint property of both spouses and pass automatically from one to the other. The community property states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

From the pool of assets in the estate, an executor is required to pay all just debts. This means that, before a beneficiary may receive anything, all debts must be satisfied. Property might be sold to create liquidity in order to accomplish this. If there are more debts than there are assets, the estate must sell of as many assets as possible to pay off the creditors. If there is no money in the estate, the creditor can not collect anything. Rather than force people into this tiresome process, many creditors will agree to discharge a debt upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate or obituary. This is particularly true of small, unsecured debts. Life insurance proceeds were never owned by the decedent and should pass to a beneficiary without consequence to the estate. Proceeds of a retirement account may also be exempt from debts.

If creditors continue harassing the beneficiaries of debtors, they may be violating federal regulations under the FDCPA. They can be held accountable by their actions, either by the FTC, the state attorney general, or a private consumer law attorney.


Monday, January 11, 2016

What Your Loved Ones Absolutely Need to Know About Your Estate Plan

What Your Loved Ones Absolutely Need to Know About Your Estate Plan

The conversation about a person’s last wishes can be an awkward one for both the individual who is the topic of conversation and his or her loved ones. The end of someone’s life is not a topic anyone looks forward to discussing. It is, however, an important conversation that must be had so that the family understands  the testator’s final wishes before he or she passes away. If a significant sum is being left to someone or some entity outside of the family, an explanation of this action may go a long way to avoiding a contested will. In a similar vein, if one heir is receiving a larger share of the estate than the others, it is prudent to have this action explained. If funds are being placed in a trust instead of given directly to the heirs, it makes sense for the testator to advise his or her loved ones in advance.

When a loved one dies, people are often in a state of emotional turmoil. Each deals with grief differently and, often, unpredictably. Anger is a common reaction to loss, one of the five stages postulated to apply to everyone dealing with such a tragedy. Simply by talking to loved ones ahead of time, a testator can preempt any anger misdirected at the estate plan and avoid an unnecessary dispute, be it a small family tiff or a prolonged legal battle.

The executor of the estate must be privy to a significant amount of information before a testator passes on. It is helpful for the executor to know that he or she has been chosen for this role  and to have accepted the appointment in advance. The executor should know the location of the original will. Concerns of fraud mean that only the original copy of a will can be entered into probate. The executor should be aware of all bank accounts, assets, and debts in a testator’s name. This will avoid a tedious search for documents after the decedent passes on and will ensure that all assets are included as part of the estate. The executor of an estate should be aware of all memberships, because it will be the executor’s responsibility to cancel them. An up-to-date accounting of all assets and debts will simplify the settlement of the estate for an executor significantly.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Advance Directives are a Critical Component of Estate Planning

March 31, 2016 will mark the eleventh anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old who succumbed after her feeding tube was removed as part of a very public legal battle in Florida between her husband and parents.

As you may recall, Terri Schiavo was in a coma for nearly 15 years after she suffered cardiac arrest and sustained a brain injury.  Her husband, Michael Schiavo, alleged that his wife would not want to live in her incapacitated state; she had no written instructions in place.

Her parents, on the other hand, suspected that Michael had something to do with Terri’s collapse and argued that she valued life and would have chosen to be sustained.  As you also recall, the Florida Legislature, then-Gov. Jeb Bush, and then Congress and President George W. Bush all intervened in this legal battle. While no one will ever know Terri’s desires, we can safely assume that she would not have wanted the acrimony that her condition created between her husband and parents.

The Terri Schiavo story highlights the critical need for clear instructions as to health care when the patient is unable to make those decisions for him or herself.  Most polls still show that only a minimum of respondents say a doctor should always try to save a patient’s life, while a majority believe that patients should sometimes be allowed to die without life sustaining measures. And a majority also say they would tell their doctor to end treatment if they were in great pain with no hope of improvement.

The same polls show that, surprisingly,only a slim majority of patients had discussed end-of-life care with a spouse, whereas a minority of those over 65, had done so with their children.It is estimated that less than one third of Americans have taken the more legally enforceable measure of appointing a health care proxy to act on their behalf if they cannot act for themselves (known as Advance Health Care Directives in California).

These polls are particularly disturbing given that between 2016 and 2040, the United States will experience considerable growth in its older population.  In 2040, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 79.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 45.1 million in 2016. The baby boomers are largely responsible for this increase in the older population, as they began turning 65 in 2011. By 2050, the surviving baby boomers will be over the age of 85.  And the foregoing doesn’t even address the corresponding increase in the percentage of elders with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dimentia or other disabling conditions that underscore the importance of appointing a health care agent who can make important decisions for the elder.

Given that we are all likely to suffer from some form of disability during our lifetimes it is critical that we think through these issues carefully and that we prepare the legal documents necessary to effectuate our desires – so that our desires will be carried out even if we are unable to express them ourselves.  This is one area where the help of counsel who focuses on these issues is especially critical. 


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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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