Do you really need a will?

There is a question we hear alot when people come to our office – namely: Do you really need a will?
You May Not Think You Need a Will, But You Really Do.

Most Americans do not have a simple will as part of their estate plan. You might believe that a will is only for the rich and famous, and not the average person who has a far smaller net worth. On the other hand, you may think that a will is entirely unnecessary since you have a trust, jointly owned property, or have named beneficiaries on your insurance.

So, do you really need a will? The short answer to this question is “yes.” Continue reading

‘Till Death Do Us Part, Too: Estate Planning Tips for Commitment Without Marriage

Advice columnist Ann Landers once observed that “love is friendship that has caught fire.” If that’s true, there are thousands of ways for that blaze to unfold. For many Americans, such devotion and passion do not need to be neatly formalized as marriage.

In fact, our cultural norms are shifting, and quickly. Consider the following:

  • Per the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 112 million people in the U.S. are unmarried;
  • 45 percent of our country’s households are “unmarried households.”
  • In 2013, the CDC found that “cohabitation [without marriage] is now a regular part of family life in the U.S.”

Unfortunately, the law has not kept up with these societal trends. If you and your significant other love each other but don’t want to tie the knot, you need an estate plan that takes into account your specific situation while protecting you both, along with any other family members or loved ones you wish to include.

Estate planning for married couples can seem pretty straightforward because it relies on long-standing, proven legal and tax strategies. Unmarried couples, however, may need to take a more individualized approach in order to achieve their goals. Here are some of the documents and methods you need to consider when creating or updating an estate plan.

  1. Living Trusts

Living trusts allow you to use your assets while you are alive and then bypass the probate process when transferring property to loved ones after you die. A trust can also keep your business out of the public record, and it can empower someone else to handle your finances if you become unable to do so. Even though trusts tend to cost more up-front than related solutions, the benefits they provide cannot be easily or reliably replicated with other planning options. On balance, a trust is the superior tool for virtually everyone; it should be the cornerstone of almost any comprehensive plan, especially for couples who have not formalized their relationships with a legal marriage.

  1. Wills

A pour-over will can be an effective “backup” and compliment to a revocable trust. When you die, your assets get funneled into (or “poured-over” into) your trust and then distributed to your beneficiaries per the terms and instructions of that trust. The pour-over will keeps things simple, making the process less stressful (and prone to error) for your executor and trustee. It also helps wrap up loose ends, in case you didn’t transfer every last asset to your trust before you die.

What happens if you die without a will or other estate plan? Courts refer to this as “dying intestate,” and it means that the rules that will apply to your estate will be those written into your state’s laws. These laws rarely, if ever, account for long-term unmarried partners, so a will is essential to protect the person to whom you are committed. As an unmarried couple, you simply cannot rely on the intestate laws to work for you.

  1. Beneficiary Designations

Most retirement accounts and many other types of accounts allow you to designate a “beneficiary,” or a person who will automatically receive what’s in the account when you die. Make sure you update your beneficiaries on your 401(k), IRA, or other retirement accounts, as well as on life insurance and other documents. Depending on how your trust is designed, your circumstances, and your goals, you may name one or more trusts as the beneficiary rather than an individual person.

  1. Power of Attorney, Designation of Health Care Surrogate, and Similar Documents

These documents allow you to designate your significant other as the person who has the right to make certain types of decisions and sign documents on your behalf if you become incapacitated. If no such power exists, the decision-making task typically passes to a close blood relative and typically also requires a court proceeding called a guardianship or conservatorship, depending on the type of help you need and what state you in live. Your lawyer can help you determine which powers should be covered by documents like these to ensure that enough authority is granted while still providing protection against unauthorized actions.

Whether you’ve been living with a life partner for decades, and you’re now eyeing retirement options; or you’re just beginning a family with a person who has not formally and legally been recognized as your wife or husband, you probably have questions. How should you protect yourself and family financially as you get older? What can you do to enshrine the values you hold dear for the next generation? What if an unwanted event happens, throwing you and your partner off balance — what contingency plans can be put in place?

Our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you identify a strategy to get the peace of mind you need. Please call our office today at 832.408.0505or email us to schedule a private consultation.

Do you really need a trust?

Although many people equate “estate planning” with having a will, there are many advantages to having a trust rather than a will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. While there are other estate planning tools (such as joint tenancy, transfer on death, beneficiary designations, to name a few), only a trust provides comprehensive management of your property in the event you can’t make financial decisions for yourself (commonly called legal incapacity) or after your death.

One of the primary advantages of having a trust is that it provides the ability to bypass the publicity, time, and expense of probate. Probate is the legal process by which a court decides the rightful heirs and distribution of assets of a deceased through the administration of the estate. This process can easily cost thousands of dollars and take several months to more than a year to resolve. Or course, not all assets are subject to probate. Some exemptions include jointly owned assets with rights of survivorship as well as assets with designated beneficiaries (such as life insurance, annuities, and retirement accounts) and payable upon death or transfer on death accounts. But joint tenancy and designating beneficiaries don’t provide the ability for someone you trust to manage your property if you’re unable to do so, so they are an incomplete solution. And having a will does not avoid probate.

Of note, if your probate estate is small enough – or it is going to a surviving spouse or domestic partner – you may qualify for a simplified probate process in your state, although this is highly dependent on the state where you live and own property. In general, if your assets are worth $100,000 or more, you will likely not qualify for simplified probate and should strongly consider creating a trust. Considering the cost of probate should also be a factor in your estate planning as creating a trust can save you both time and money in the long run. Moreover, if you own property in another state or country, the probate process will be even more complicated because your family may face multiple probate cases after your death, one in each state where you owned property – even if you have a will. Beyond the cost and time of probate, this court proceeding that includes your financial life and last wishes is public record. A trust, on the other hand, creates privacy for your personal matters as your heirs would not be made aware of the distribution of your assets knowledge of which may cause conflicts or even legal challenges.

A common reason to create a trust is to provide ongoing financial support for a child or another loved one who may not ever be able to manage these assets on their own. Through a trust, you can designate someone to manage the assets and distribute them to your heirs under the terms you provide. Giving an inheritance to an heir directly and all at once may have unanticipated ancillary effects, such as disqualifying them from receiving some form of government benefits, enabling and funding an addiction, or encouraging irresponsible behavior that you don’t find desirable. A trust can also come with conditions that must be met for the person to receive the benefit of the gift. Furthermore, if you ever become incapacitated your successor trustee – the person you name in the document to take over after you pass away – can step in and manage the trust’s assets, helping you avoid a guardianship or conservatorship (sometimes called “living” probate). This protection can be essential in an emergency or in the event you succumb to a serious, chronic illness. Unlike a will, a trust can protect against court interference or control while you are alive and after your death.

Trusts are not simply just about avoiding probate. Creating a trust can give you privacy, provide ongoing financial support for loved ones, and protect you and your property if you are unable to manage your own assets. Simply put, the creation of a trust puts you in the driver’s seat when it comes to your assets and your wishes as opposed to leaving this critical life decision to others, like a judge. To learn more about trusts – and estate planning in general, including which type of plan best fits your needs – Contact our office today at 832.408.0505

Four Reasons Why Estate Planning Isn’t Just for the Top 1 Percent

There is a common misconception that estate plans are only for the ultra-rich – the top 1 percent, 10%, 20%, or some other arbitrary determination of “enough” money.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. People at all income and wealth levels can benefit from a comprehensive estate plan. Sadly, many have not sat down to put their legal house in order.

According to a 2016 Gallup News Poll more than half of all Americans do not have a will, let alone a comprehensive estate plan. These same results were identified by WealthCounsel in its Estate Planning Awareness Survey. Gallup noted that 44 percent of people surveyed in 2016 had a will place, compared to 51 percent in 2005 and 48 percent in 1990.  Also, over the years, there appears to be a trend of fewer people even thinking about estate planning.

When it comes to estate planning, the sooner you start the better. Continue reading

How Your Trust Can Help a Loved One Who Struggles with Addiction

Substance addiction is by no means rare, impacting as many as one in seven Americans. Because of its prevalence, navigating a loved one’s addiction is actually a relatively common topic in everyday life. But you should also consider it when working on your estate planning. Whether the addiction is alcoholism, drug abuse, or behavioral like gambling, we all want our loved ones to be safe and experience a successful recovery.  A properly created estate plan can help.

The idea that money from a trust could end up fueling those addictive behaviors can be a particularly troubling one. Luckily, it’s possible to frame your estate planning efforts in such a way that you’ll ensure your wealth has only a positive impact on your loved one during their difficult moments.

Funding for treatment

One of the ways your trust can have a positive influence on your loved one’s life is by helping fund their addiction treatment. If a loved one is already struggling with addiction issues, you can explicitly designate your trust funds for use in his or her voluntary recovery efforts. In extreme cases where an intervention of some sort is required to keep the family member safe, you can provide your trustee with guidance to help other family members with the beneficiary’s best interest by encouraging involuntary treatment until the problem is stabilized and the loved one begins recovery.

Incentive trusts

Incentive features can be included in your estate planning to help improve the behavior of the person in question. For example, the loved one who has an addiction can be required to maintain steady employment or voluntarily seek treatment in order to obtain additional benefits of the trust (such as money for a vacation or new car). Although this might seem controlling, this type of incentive structure can also help with treatment and recovery by giving a loved one something to work towards. This approach is probably best paired with funding for treatment (discussed above), so there are resources to help with treatment and then benefits that can help to motivate a beneficiary.

Lifetime discretionary trusts

Giving your heirs their inheritance as a lump sum could end up enabling addiction or make successful treatment more difficult. Luckily, there’s a better way.  Lifetime discretionary trusts provide structure for an heir’s inheritance. If someone in your life is (or might eventually) struggle with addiction, you can rest easy when you know the inheritance you leave can’t be accessed early or make harmful addiction problem worse.

Of course, you want to balance this lifetime protection of the money with the ability of your loved one to actually obtain money out of the trust. That’s where the critical consideration of who to appoint as a trustee comes in. Your trustee will have discretion to give money directly to your beneficiary or pay on your loved one’s behalf (such as a payment directly to an inpatient treatment center or payment of an insurance premium). When dealing with addiction, your trustee will need to have a firm grasp of what appropriate usage of the trust’s funds looks like. Appointing a trustee is always an important task, but it’s made even more significant when that person will be responsible for keeping potentially harmful sums of money out of the addicted person’s hands.

Navigating a loved one’s addiction is more than enough stress already without having to worry about further enablement through assets contained in your trust. Let us take some of the burden off your shoulders by helping you build an estate plan that positively impacts your loved one and doesn’t contribute to the problem at hand. That way, you can go back to focusing your efforts on the solution. Contact our office today at 832.408.0505 to see how we can help.

5 Things Every New Mother Needs to Know About Wills

As a new mother, you naturally want to ensure your new baby’s future in every way. For many new mothers, infancy is a time for celebrating new life, and making a will is the last thing on their minds. For others, the process of bringing new life into the world sparks intense feelings of wanting control and needing organization. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, you might be struggling to figure out what steps you need to take to protect your children’s future should the unthinkable happen. Here are five key things every new mother should know about wills.

  1. Naming a guardian could be the most important part of your will.

If you pass away while your child is a minor, the first issue to be addressed is who will assume responsibility for your child’s care. If you don’t name a guardian for your child in the will, the courts may decide this question for you, and the guardian might not be the person you would choose. Selecting a trusted guardian is in many ways more important at this stage than deciding about how to pass any assets you own.

  1. Name an executor you trust.

To ensure your child does receive all that you have allocated when she comes of age, choose a trustworthy executor. Many people choose a family member, but it’s just as acceptable to appoint a trusted attorney to handle your estate. Typically, an attorney has no emotional attachment to the family, which might seem bad, but usually results in less potential conflict.

  1. Named beneficiaries on your financial accounts may override the will.

Many accounts allow you to name a beneficiary. When you pass away, the funds go to the beneficiary named on the account, even if your will states otherwise. If you’re creating a will with your child in mind (or adding the child to an existing will), you should review your investment and bank accounts with your financial advisor to make sure there are no inconsistencies when naming beneficiaries. It’s also a good time to check retirement account and life insurance beneficiary designations with your financial advisor and your attorney.

  1. A will is not always the right document for your goals.

When naming your child as a beneficiary, a will only goes into effect after you die. If your will leaves property outright to a minor child, the court will step in and hold the assets until your child turns 18. Most 18 year olds lack the maturity to handle even a modest estate, so we don’t recommend outright inheritance for minor children.

A trust, on the other hand, goes into effect when you create it and can provide structure to manage the assets you leave behind for the benefit of your child. An experienced estate planning attorney can advise you on the best option for your family and your circumstances.

  1. In the absence of clearly stated intentions, the state steps in.

Think of a will, trust and other estate planning documents as an instruction manual for your executor and the courts to follow. You must be clear and consistent in your stated intentions regarding your child, as well as for others. If you’re not clear or if you don’t leave any instructions at all, the probate courts will step in and follow the government’s plan, which can lead to long delays and is probably not the plan you would have selected for your child and family.

Providing for your baby’s long-term welfare may start with just a simple will, but to be fully protected, you probably need more. That’s why it’s important to talk with a competent estate planning attorney to make sure you have the right plans in place to fulfill your goals. We’re here to help! Contact our office today at 832.408.0505 to talk about your options to protect your new baby.

Baltimore Register of Wills Can’t Find Her Father’s Original Last Will, Will Your Family Be Able to Find Yours?

While it’s not unusual for an original last will and testament to be misplaced, it is when your daughter happens to be the Register of Wills for Baltimore City. 

 What is a Register of Wills?

 In Maryland, the Register of Wills is an elected official in each county and the City of Baltimore who is responsible for overseeing the administration of the estates of deceased persons during the probate process.  As an added benefit, each Maryland Register of Wills provides safekeeping for the last will and testaments of living persons.

 Why is it Important to Locate an Original Last Will?

 Belinda Conaway became the Register of Wills for Baltimore City in December 2014 after her stepmother, Mary W. Conaway, held the office from 1982 through 2012.  After Belinda’s father, Frank M. Conaway, Sr., died in February 2015, court records indicate that the family was unable to locate his original last will and testament but did find a copy of a will he signed in 1999.  The 1999 will left Mr. Conaway’s estate equally to his children, Belinda and Frank M. Conaway, Jr.  In March 2015, Belinda filed a petition requesting that the copy of the will be admitted to probate.  She stated in her petition, “This copy was found among the personal papers and I have not been able to locate the original.” 

 Ironic, isn’t it?  Fortunately in this case, Mr. Conaway’s children agreed that the 1999 will was in fact their father’s last will and the probate judge admitted the copy to probate.  But this may not be the case in your situation.  Sometimes after an original will goes missing and a copy is found, family members will disagree about whether it is in fact the deceased person’s last will.  If this is the case, then the copy may be overlooked in favor of an older original will that has been located or state laws that dictate who inherits when there is no will (known as “intestacy laws”).

 This is why it is so important for your loved ones to be able to find your most-recent original last will – because without it, the laws of your state may presume that you intended to destroy your will and a copy of it will be viewed as worthless.

 Who Knows Where to Find Your Original Will?

 Do you know where your original will is located?  Do your loved ones know where your original will is located?  While your family members certainly don’t need to know what your will says, they do need to know where your original will is being stored. 

 On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable letting family members know where to find your original will, then let someone you trust – such as your attorney, accountant, or financial advisor – know where to find your original will.  Otherwise, your family may end up in front of a probate judge and your true final wishes may be overlooked. Contact our office today at 832.408.0505 to see how we can help you!

 

3 Simple Ways to Avoid Probate Costs

The bad news: probated estates are subject to a variety of costs from attorneys, executors, appraisers, accountants, courts, and state law. Depending on the probate’s complexity, fees can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The good news: probate costs can be reduced by avoiding probate. It’s really that simple.

Here are three simple ways to avoid probate costs by avoiding probate:

 Name a Beneficiary. The probate process determines who gets what when there is no beneficiary designation. So, naming a beneficiary is the easiest way to avoid probate. Common beneficiary designation assets include:

  • Life insurance
  • Annuities
  • Retirement plans
  1. Create and Fund a Revocable Living Trust. A revocable living trust owns your property, yet you remain in charge of all legal decisions until your death. After your death, your named trustee manages your assets – according to your A trust works well if properly created and funded by an experienced estate planning attorney.
  1. Own Property Jointly. Probate can be avoided if the property you own is held jointly with a right of survivorship. There are several ways that you can establish joint ownership of property such as:
  • Joint tenancy with right of survivorship – ownership simply transfers to other tenants upon your death;
  • Tenancy by its entirety – is a form of joint tenancy with right of survivorship, but only for married couples in some states;
  • Community property – property obtained during a marriage in some states;

State laws play an important role here. We can help you determine which form of joint ownership, if any, is a good fit for you.

 We Have the Tools to Help You

Contact our office today at 832.408.0505. We’ll help you decide whether it makes sense to avoid probate in your particular case and, if so, the best way to do so.

What to Expect from Estate Planning in 2018

2017 is now fading into the rearview mirror. As we all look ahead to 2018, let’s consider a few things to watch regarding estate planning, so you and your family can be completely protected.

  • The death tax. The death tax has been in a state of flux ever since the early 2000s when the Bush administration’s first tax cuts changed the exemption and tax rates. The recently-passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the latest significant change. Starting January 1, 2018, the estate tax exemption amount will double to $11.2 million per person (married couples have $22.4 million of combined exemption). Like the current exemption, this amount will adjust annually for inflation. However, this enhanced exemption expires on December 31, 2025, at which time it will return to an amount similar to the $5.49 million per person exemption we’ve had in 2017. Similar to what happened when the Bush tax cuts phased in (and were scheduled to expire) during the 2000s, we’ll face the same situation over the coming years – the law provides a deadline and timetable, but political activity may result in something entirely different. Regardless of your stance on this new tax law, if you have a plan based around the now-old rules, it’s time to visit with us, so we can make sure the plan still meets your needs and goals while maximizing the benefit to your family, charities, or other beneficiaries.
  • Incapacity planning. What happens if you don’t die? Historically, much of estate planning focused on what happened to your assets after your death. With cognitive impairment at near epidemic proportions, you must plan for the contingency that you don’t die and instead require assistance managing your affairs. Depending on your circumstances, this could range from a relatively simple matter of ensuring you have a trusted person authorized to make decisions to extensive planning to become eligible for help paying for nursing home care. Either way, now is the time to work with us to ensure that your plan protects you, even if you don’t die.
  • Giving your family lifelong financial security. Although you may not have a “large” amount of wealth now, you probably have an IRA or a life insurance policy. A modest IRA or life insurance policy could be the foundation for lifelong financial security for your family. To make this a reality, you need to set up your affairs with the proper structures to ensure money avoids costs, taxes, and the risk of financial immaturity or ignorance. We are here to help you ensure that the savings you’ve spent a lifetime building will be there for your family.
  • Fixing broken or old trusts. Many people have inherited assets from parents, aunts, uncles, and others through a trust. Some of these trusts may use old strategies or be expensive or difficult to administer. The law recognizes that old trusts may need some refreshing. There are many options available to modernize an old trust, and the best way to get started is to meet with us so we can explore which option is best for you and the trust you inherited.

2018 will likely be an exciting, dynamic year. No matter where you are on the estate planning journey, carve out some time to talk with us to make sure that you and your family are fully protected. Give us a call today.

Planning to Protect Your Assets

Asset protection planning is an important step to take in safeguarding your hard-earned assets from being lost, inadvertently, because you overlooked something important.

 The most foundational level of asset protection is to plan for what will happen to your assets in the event of your incapacity or death because you are 100% guaranteed to have one or both of those happen to you.

If you become incapacitated or die without proper planning in place, your assets will get stuck in the court system, and could be delayed in getting to your loved ones’ or even lost. If you have not reviewed your planning for death or incapacity in the past couple of years (or ever at all), you will want to call us for a Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session as soon as possible.

And, what about planning to protect assets from things that could happen during life, such as potential litigation, taking on too many debts, accidents or other mishaps?

First and foremost, buy insurance! Insurance can do two things an asset protection plan can’t: pay to defend you in the event a lawsuit is brought against you and pay to settle any lawsuits. Bottom line: insurance says I love you. And, if you need it, you’ll be glad you have it.

As part of your Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session, we will look at the types and amounts of insurance you have, and determine what else may be needed, or if you are even over-insured.

If you have a business, make sure you’ve fully separated personal and business assets. And that you are using your business entity properly, to ensure that any business activities are kept within your business entity, and that you have us review any personal guarantees before you sign something that could create personal liability for you.

If you need more thorough asset protection, due to an upcoming marriage, or engaging in other risky behavior, please contact us sooner rather than later.

Asset protection cannot happen after something happens. It must be set up ahead of time to be effective, and so it must happen now, if you want to get set up right.

Protecting your assets takes know-how. If you’re ready to develop a smart asset protection plan, consider sitting down with a licensed Estate Attorney. As your Estate Planning attorney, we can help you with your asset protection planning needs. Our Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session guides you to protect and preserve what matters most. Before the session, we’ll send you a Family Wealth & Legacy Inventory and Assessment to complete that will get you thinking about what you own, what’s most important to you, and what you can do to ensure your family is taken care of.

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Estate and Business Attorney. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 832.408.0505 to schedule a Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session and find out how to better protect your family.