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Irvine, CA Estate Planning Blog

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. 


Monday, December 21, 2015

The Rule against Perpetuities

The law allows a person preparing a will to have almost complete control over his or her assets after the testator passes on, but there are limits to such power. A person can restrict a property from being sold, or make sure that it is used for a specific purpose. A property can be bequeathed to a family member as long on condition that the person maintains the family business in a specific city, or exercises daily, or places flowers on the deceased's grave every week, or engages in any other behavior the testator desires. This freedom, however, is not without limits. The time limit on this ability is called the rule against perpetuities. The rule is also referred to as the “dead man’s hand” statute.

The rule against perpetuities is complex and rarely utilized. At the time of the passing of the testator, the heirs of the estate are locked in. These heirs are referred to as “lives in being.” For the purposes of this rule, if a child is conceived but not yet born at the time of the testator’s death, it will be considered a life in being. Once the last living heir named in the will passes away, the restrictions on the property will continue in place as the testator desired for 21 years. The idea is that a testator may control his assets for a full generation after his or her death. The rule is notoriously difficult to apply properly. When it does apply, the conditions on the bequest are abandoned and the gift returns to the residual estate.

What makes this rule so confusing is that, when an individual writes a will, he or she may make gifts to potential children or grandchildren. These children and grandchildren, however, may not be born until years later. If a child has been born at the time the decedent passes away, he or she is subject to the restrictions on the bequest during his or her lifetime. If a grandchild is conceived and born after the decedent’s death, however, the child may avoid the restrictions 21 years after the death of the last heir alive at the time of the decedent’s death. There is no way to predict when this might occur. The rule is archaic and easily avoided. A knowledgeable attorney can help a person planning his or her estate set up an equitable trust. Similar to a will, a trust may impose conditions on the use of assets, but is not subject to the rule against perpetuities. There are other advantages to a trust, but one of the most important is avoiding this unpredictable and confusing rule.


Monday, December 7, 2015

What is a tax basis and how will it affect my estate plan?

A tax basis is essentially the purchase price of a piece of property. Whenever that property is sold, the seller must pay taxes on the difference between the sale price and the original purchase price. This concept applies to all property, including stocks, bonds, vehicles, mechanical equipment, and real estate. If debts are assumed along with the purchase price, the principal amount of the debt will be included in the basis. The basis can be adjusted downwards when a person deducts depreciation costs on his or her income tax returns, and may be increased for capital investments towards improving the property that are not deducted for income tax purposes. Selling a property that has been held for a long time can carry a serious tax burden because of inflation, particularly when real estate prices have increased.

When an individual receives property as an inheritance, the tax basis is reset to whatever the fair market value is at the time of the transfer of title. This means that the heir would pay significantly less taxes if that property is sold by the beneficiary than if the original owner were to sell it and devise the money to his beneficiaries. Most simple wills provide that all of a testator’s assets are placed into a residual estate to be divided equally among the heirs. This means that an executor must liquidate the assets of the estate and divide the proceeds among the heirs. However, because there is no transfer of title before the property is sold, the heirs are stuck with the grantor’s basis and they lose an opportunity for a sizeable tax break.

A person planning his or her estate may also reset the basis in his or her property by giving it as a gift directly to his or her heirs or by gifting the property to an inter vivos trust. These actions can have their own tax related consequences, or create other unintended problems for the beneficiaries. Only an experienced estate planning attorney can advise you on the most efficient way to pass your assets on to your heirs.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Blended Families Underscore the Need for Estate Planning

Anyone with children or modest assets should seriously consider some minimal estate planning, but the increasing number of blended families underscores the need for proper estate planning.

Blended families can involve children from a prior marriage as well as joint children, sometimes joking referred to as “his, hers and theirs.”  And blended families involve both younger and older couples, and nearly everyone in between.

When the new spouse is significantly younger, this sometimes means that the older spouse’s children are close in age to the younger.  These relationships can cause more than friction between the step-parent and step-children.

Most parents want to ensure that their assets will pass to their children, not their stepchildren.  However, absent good estate planning, there is no guarantee that their children will inherit their assets.  In fact, if the couple creates common “I love you” wills such that their assets pass to the survivor of them, there is a significant likelihood their children will be totally disinherited.

This is because all of their assets will pass to the surviving spouse to do with as he or she pleases. More often than not this means excluding the stepchildren, who then receive nothing.

The fact that Americans are living longer, and sometimes remarrying much later in life, means that blended family issues come into play there too. Add the gaping generational divide between Depression-era parents, who valued frugality above all else, and their Baby Boomer children, who relish self-reward, and the dynamics can be explosive.”

Thus, baby boomer children expecting an inheritance may have to wait much longer than expected. But perhaps more difficult, who should pay for the cost of the surviving spouse’s care? Should the stepchildren be forced to use their inheritance to pay for an aging step-parent’s care, particularly after only a short-term marriage?  Or should this burden fall on the children?

There is no one right answer here, but these questions epitomize the many questions that arise with blended families. These questions should be answered with the help of counsel and proper planning.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Business Succession Planning Tips

Business succession plans contemplate and instruct regarding any changes in future ownership and management of a business. Most business owners know they should think about succession planning, but few actually end up doing so. It is hard to think about not being in charge of the business you have built up, but a proper succession plan can ensure that your business continues long after you are there to run it, providing an enduring legacy.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you begin to think about putting a succession plan into place for your business.

  • Proper plans take time - often years - to develop and implement because there are many steps involved. It is really never too early to start thinking about how you want to hand off control of your business.

  • Succession plans are a waste of time unless they are more than a piece of paper. Involving attorneys, accountants and business advisors ensures that your plan is actually implemented.

  • There is no cookie-cutter succession plan that fits all businesses, and no one way to develop and implement a successful plan. Each business is unique, so each business needs a custom-made plan that fits the needs of all parties involved.

  • It may seem counterintuitive, but transferring a business between people who are familiar with the business - from one family member to another, or between business partners - is often more complicated than selling the business to a complete stranger. Emotional investments cannot be easily quantified, but their importance is real. Having a neutral party at the negotiating table can help everyone involved focus on what is best for the business and the people that are depending on it for their livelihood.

  • Once a succession plan has been established, it is critically important that the completed plan be continually reviewed and updated as circumstances change. This is one of the biggest reasons having an attorney on your succession planning team is important. Sound legal counsel can assist you in making periodic adjustments and maintaining an effective succession plan.

If you are ready to start thinking about succession planning, contact an experienced business law attorney today.


Monday, November 16, 2015

If you're 70 and have considerable assets, should you consider Medicaid Planning?

There are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to implement Medicaid planning.  If you’re in good health, now would be the prime time to do this planning. The main reason is that any Medicaid planning may entail using an irrevocable trust, or perhaps gifts to your children, which would incur a five-year look back for Medicaid qualification purposes. The use of an irrevocable trust to receive these gifts would provide more protection and in some cases more control for you.

As an example, if you were to gift assets directly to a child, that child could be sued or could go through a divorce, and those assets could be lost to a creditor or a divorcing spouse even though the child had intended to hold those assets intact in case they needed to be returned to you. If instead, you had used an irrevocable trust to receive the gifted assets, those assets would not have been considered the child’s and therefore would not have been lost to the child’s creditor or a divorcing spouse. You need to understand that doing this type of planning, and using the irrevocable trust, may mean that those assets are not available to you and therefore you need to be comfortable with that structure.

Depending upon the size of your estate, and your sources of income, perhaps you have sufficient assets to pay for your own care for quite some time. You should work closely with an attorney knowledgeable about Medicaid planning as well as a financial planner that can help identify your sources of income should you need long-term care. Also, you should look into whether or not you could qualify for long-term care insurance, and how much the premiums would be on that type of insurance.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Facebook Founders Use Estate Planning Technique for $200 Million Tax-Free Transfer

Just in case some may not have heard about this case involving the planning of the rich and famous in 2008, take a minute to better understand what mere mortals can accomplish through proper planning. Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and CEO Sheryl Sandberg used a tried-and-true estate planning technique known as a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT) to transfer upwards of $200 million free of gift and estate tax.

How did they do this? They took advantage of a perfectly legal structure that is expressly authorized by the tax code. In short, their GRATs worked like this; before an IPO and thus when Facebook’s stock value was low, the executives transferred shares of Facebook stock to their respective GRATs. In return, the executives each received an annual income stream, known as an annuity, for a predetermined number of years. If they survive this term, any property left in the trust at the conclusion of the annuity payments passes to the remainder beneficiaries (typically family members or a trust for their benefit).

The transfer is subject to gift tax only to the extent that the value of the assets transferred, plus an assumed growth rate (published by the IRS monthly and currently at historic lows), exceeds the amount of the annuity payments back to the trust maker (aka grantor).  

Thus, one can structure this transaction as a “zeroed-out GRAT” such that the value to the remainder beneficiaries is calculated at zero and the transfer is not subject to gift tax (this is true whether we transfer $100 or $100 million to the trust).  However, even though there is no gift tax, any actual growth beyond the IRS’s assumed rate, or increases in value in trust assets, or (as in this case) both, inure to the remainder beneficiaries free of gift and estate tax.

As was the case here, GRATs are perfect for highly appreciating assets and those assets that will return more than the IRS’s assumed growth rate which is still very low. Thus, any client with pre-IPO stock or other highly appreciating assets should at least consider this strategy.

It is prudent to consider this technique now since the Obama Administration’s 2016 budget proposals, known as the Greenbook, proposes doing away with zeroed-out and decreasing GRATs. It suggests imposing a requirement that the value of the remainder interest in a GRAT be equal to at least25 percent of the value of the property transferred to the GRAT or, if greater, $500,000 (but not more than the value of the GRAT in any case). In addition, the budget proposal seeks to impose a minimum 10-year term for GRATs and a maximum term of the life expectancy of the annuitant plus 10 years (to combat “100-year GRATs”). 


Monday, October 26, 2015

What is a Life Estate?

A life estate is a special designation in probate law referring to a gift to a family member that lasts as long as the life of the recipient. If an individual uses a life estate as part of his or her estate plan, whatever is bequeathed under the life estate will revert back to the residual estate upon the death of the life estate recipient. It is most common in scenarios where an individual starts a new family without children later in life and wants to ensure that the present spouse is taken care of for the remainder of her or his life. The owner of a life estate is called a life tenant. A life estate is often used as an alternative to a trust because it provides the life tenant with more control over the transferred asset.

A life tenant may treat an asset as his or her own. A home may be rented to tenants for income. The life tenant may sell his or her interest in the property to the heirs of the residual estate or to third parties. If the property is sold to a third party, that third party must surrender the property to the residual heirs upon the death of the life tenant.

Though the property belongs to the life tenant, the life tenant has a duty to the residual heirs to keep the property reasonably maintained and in good condition. He or she has an obligation to avoid mortgage arrearages and tax liens while in possession of the property. Exploiting natural resources on the property may be restricted during a life tenancy. A life tenant may not bequeath his or her interest in a life estate through a will because that interest immediately terminates upon the life tenant’s death. Significant changes to the property need to be agreed upon by all parties.

Though there are benefits, there are also drawbacks to establishing a life estate as part of an estate plan. The action could create estate tax issues for the tenant’s estate. In addition, creditors of the tenant may attach liens on the property, creating complicated legal issues for the heirs of the residual estate.


Monday, October 19, 2015

What Is the Spousal Share of an Estate?

There are many reasons why a person might leave a spouse or another loved one out of his or her will. It is possible that the will in question was executed prior to a marriage and was never properly updated. It may also be the case that the husband and wife, though still technically married, are estranged, and do not contribute to one another’s support. An end of life revelation of a past infidelity may anger a spouse enough to rewrite his or her last will and testament. Individuals may make rash decisions to disinherit spouses based on a single argument or misunderstanding. This can be exacerbated by symptoms of dementia. Regardless of the reason, a person who is not named in his or her spouse’s will may petition the court for the spousal share to receive a portion of the estate.

The spousal share of an estate, also called an elective share, is a holdover from the concept of dower in English common law. Traditionally, dower is a portion of a man’s estate guaranteed to a wife when she is widowed to ensure that she does not fall into poverty after her husband dies. The practice continues today without the same restrictions on gender. Every state in America has a provision in its laws to protect an individual whose spouse dies from being left with nothing. Similar provisions for children also exist in some states. Attempts have been made to introduce legislation to protect unmarried romantic partners the same way as married couples, but these attempts have had little success.

The structure of these protections vary from state to state. The value of the estate for the purposes of establishing the spousal share may include the widow’s assets depending on the jurisdiction. Some states provide a widowed spouse a larger share of the deceased’s estate than others, but almost every state prohibits an individual from disinheriting a spouse entirely. The one state that does not permit an elective share to the spouse in a probate case requires that an estate pay a disinherited spouse financial support for up to one year after the death.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Five Common Reasons a Will Might Be Invalid

There are several reasons that a will may prove invalid. It is important for testators to be aware of these pitfalls in order to avoid them.

Improper Execution

The requirements vary from state to state, but most states require a valid will to be witnessed by two people not named in the will. Some jurisdictions require the document to be notarized as well. Although these restrictions may be relaxed if the will is holographic (handwritten), it is best to satisfy these requirements to ensure that the testamentary document will be honored by the probate court.

Lack of Testamentary Capacity

Anyone over the age of 18 is presumed to understand what a will is. At the end of life, individuals are often not in the best state of mind. If court finds that an individual is suffering from dementia, is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or is incapable of understanding the document being executed for some other reason, the court may invalidate the will on the grounds that the individual does  not have testamentary capacity.

Replacement by a Later Will

Whenever an individual writes a new will, it invalidates all wills made previously. This means that a will might be believed to be valid for months until a more recently executed document surfaces. The newest will always takes precedence, controlling how assets should be distributed.

Lack of Required Content

Every will is required to contain certain provisions to carry out its purpose. These provisions, ensure that the testator understands the reason for executing the document.  Although these provisions vary from state to  state, some are common to all jurisdictions. It should be clear that the document is intended to be a will. The document  should demonstrate an individual’s wishes in regard to what should happen to his or her property after death. A proper will should also include a provision to appoint an executor to act as an agent for the estate and enforce the terms of the will. If the document  lacks any of these provisions, the will may be declared invalid. 

Undue influence or fraud

A will that was executed under undue influence, coercion or fraud will be invalidated by a court. If a will has been presented to a testator for a signature as if it were any other document, like a power of attorney or a business contract, the court will find that the will was fraudulently obtained and will not honor it. If an individual providing end of life care with exclusive access to the testator threatens to stop care unless a will is modified, that modification is considered to be the result of undue influence and the court will not accept it.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Most Important Love Letters You’ll Ever Write?

Many Americans have the misperception that estate planning is simply preparing for one’s death and is only necessary for the affluent. To the contrary, estate planning is as much about passing values to loved ones as it is about passing material possessions.

Thus it should come as no surprise that a recent Forbes article describes estate planning as “the most important love letters you’ll ever write,” encouraging readers to “find inspiration in knowing that you’re caring for the people and causes you love, even if you’re not here anymore.”

The Forbes article correctly concludes that estate planning is for every American (other than minors), and that everyone should successfully complete “thoughtfully prepared estate planning documents.” The complexity of those documents may change for more affluent Americans, but the need to care for loved ones and causes exists for everyone. And working with a qualified estate planner helps enlighten people as to all they can accomplish through the estate planning process.


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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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