‘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

The Trust Protection Myth: Your Revocable Trust Protects Against Lawsuits

WARNING:  Many people believe once they set up a Revocable Living Trust and transfer assets into the Trust, those assets are protected from lawsuits.  This is absolutely not true.

While Trusts commonly provide asset protection for beneficiaries, few Trusts protect assets owned by the person who created the Trust.

No Immediate Asset Protection?  Why Should You Create a Revocable Living Trust?

Fully funded Revocable Trusts are dynamite tools.  Here’s why:

  1. You can protect assets passing to your spouse and children. Yes, you can provide protections for loved ones that they can’t yet for themselves.
  2. Your Trust includes an incapacity plan, avoiding court interference, maintaining your control, and saving your loved ones time, money, and stress.
  3. Your Trust allows your assets to avoid probate, minimizing the time, stress, and cost of settling your final affairs.
  4. By avoiding the public probate court process, your Trust keeps all details about who is getting what, a private family matter.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Assets?

 Comprehensive estate planning has a solid foundation of insurance, including homeowners/renters, umbrella, auto, business, life insurances, disability, and the like.  Business entities such as the Limited Liability Company are commonly used for asset protection and   Domestic Asset Protection Trusts are sometimes used as well.

Your Revocable Living Trust creates a powerful value and can be drafted to provide asset protection for your loved ones.  To protect yourself, use insurance, business entities, and, perhaps, a Domestic Asset Protection Trust. Contact our office today at 832.408.0505 to see how we can help you.

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.

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.

Divorcing? Here’s What You Should Know About How it May Affect Your Trust

Trusts vary in their structure, funding, and terms, so it’s hard to know how divorce will impact your trust without review. It’s safe to say, without question, your trust (and really your entire estate plan) should be reviewed during your divorce to prevent unforeseen negative outcomes.

The impact of a divorce on your trust can depend on:

The Trust’s Structure

Trusts frequently name the spouse as a trustee and beneficiary. In divorce, clarify your wishes in regards to these provisions. Even if you want to keep each other in your financial plans going forward, the trust should be amended appropriately after your divorce is complete, so your intention is clear.

Whether It’s Revocable or Irrevocable

If it’s revocable, changing the terms of the trust is easy, but you may have to wait until after your divorce is final to do it due to “orders” that go into effect when you file for divorce that prevent you from moving assets. If your trust is irrevocable, it might be necessary to petition the court to change the trustees, and the trust assets themselves may or may not be part of the divorce judgment.

Your State’s Laws on Community Property

Divorcing parties sometimes attempt to shield assets in trusts to keep them out of the pockets of the soon to be ex. When done surreptitiously, this could significantly complicate the divorce. Even when the assets in a trust are separate property, the income from the trust might still be considered for child support and alimony purposes.

Trusts can be affected by divorce, so you should take steps to protect your trust and your intentions. If you are ready to take that step, meet with us for guidance.

As your Estate Attorney we can help you navigate your divorce so your assets, including those held in trusts, remain under your direction and control.  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 Planning Session and find out how to better protect your family.

Why You Should Never Buy Your Will From Living Social or Groupon

Of the handful of major life events that require your serious consideration, few are as emotionally charged as how to leave your assets for loved ones at the time of your death. This often complex process is accomplished via testamentary documents such as wills and trusts, which have recently become available for purchase online as standard forms.

The assets you have acquired during your life and the ways that you own them are often far more complex than a standard legal document or online service can anticipate.  When you make that all important decision to create a will or put your assets into a trust, you need an experienced estate planning attorney to guide you so that your wishes for life and death can be carried out without risk of your family getting stuck in court or conflict, when it’s too late.

Your incapacity or death will be an emotional time for your family. During this time, they need guidance, not a set of documents, which may not have even been kept up to date or adequately cover after-acquired assets.

In certain cases such as being married multiple times, having minor children, or owning a small business, legal assistance is especially necessary.

There may also be a variety different tax or asset protection implications for your inheritors. The right lawyer can advise you on the best way to handle the different assets you own such as real estate, investments, a small business, or personal property.

Is a trust right for your situation? Is there a way to transfer an asset before you pass, so that it will be protected from claims, creditors or taxation? Groupon can’t help you with that.

You may save money initially if you have a simple, small estate with few assets by just using a form that you find online. However, if you become incapacitated before death, your family could get stuck with a long drawn out court process, as they attempt to get control of your financial assets. And, if your document is unclear, contestable, or wholly or partially invalid, it’s your family who will be paying the price down the road.

Speak with a licensed Estate Attorney to create an estate plan that protects you and your loved ones.

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 Planning Session and find out how to better protect your family.

 

Avoid these 10 Common Estate Planning Mistakes

As a Personal Family Lawyer®, I see many of the same estate planning mistakes made time and again by people who either fail to plan properly or who use “do-it-yourself” estate planning websites or forms in an effort to save money.

Without professional guidance, this can cause more problems for your heirs and end up depleting estate assets by far more than what you could potentially “save” by doing it yourself online.

A qualified estate planning attorney or Personal Family Lawyer® can help you avoid these 10 common estate planning mistakes:

  1. Failure to leave any written documentation of your assets, including a list of your online accounts and passwords
  1. Failure to let family members know where to find important estate planning documents
  1. Failure to name a guardian for minor children or choosing a guardian who lives far away without planning for temporary, local guardianship (solved with a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan®)
  1. Failure to name recipients for your personal possessions
  1. Failure to designate beneficiaries for retirement and other financial accounts
  1. Failure to name secondary beneficiaries
  1. Failure to name alternative trustees or executors
  1. Failure to properly fund or title assets to any trusts you have established
  1. Failure to update your estate plan as life circumstances change
  1. Failure to create an estate plan of any kind and instead leaving it to the court system to decide how your assets will be distributed

If you’d like to learn more about how to avoid common estate planning mistakes that could cost your heirs dearly, call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk.

Alert: If This Language Is In Your Trust, Your Spouse Could Be Screwed Over When You Die … Check Your Plan Today!

If you created an estate plan that includes a living trust, you must review it to determine if it contains language that could create unnecessary cost, effort and stress for your surviving spouse.

Back in the day, when the estate tax exemption was $675,000 to $1,000,000, most living trusts were drafted to provide for a mandatory split of trust assets upon the death of the first spouse.

This was done to ensure that the full estate tax exemption was used and unnecessary estate taxes were avoided.

A split of the trust assets is still appropriate in certain circumstances, but not for the same reasons, and currently, it would not be handled in the same way.

For example, if you are in a second marriage, with children from a prior marriage, you are likely to want a split of trust assets at the first death. This ensures that the surviving spouse can use the assets of the first spouse to die during his or her life, but that the remaining assets after the death of the surviving spouse return to the children of the deceased spouse and are not diverted to a new spouse or children from a new marriage.

However, if you are in a first marriage situation, all children are from the current marriage and no additional children are likely, splitting the assets at the death of the first spouse adds significant cost and unnecessary complexity.

So, what can you do to make sure your trust still meets your needs? Have it reviewed!

First and foremost, read through your trust document to see if it includes this language:

“A pecuniary amount equal to the maximum marital deduction allowable for determining the federal estate tax payable because of the death of the Deceased Spouse reduced by the final federal estate tax values of all property interests that qualify to satisfy the marital deduction and that pass or have passed to or in trust for the Surviving Spouse, other than property interests that pass by virtue of this provision.

If, after allowing for the unified credit which has not been claimed by the Deceased Spouse for transfers made during the life of the Deceased Spouse, the amount described above is more than is necessary to eliminate any federal estate tax with respect to the estate of the Deceased Spouse, then the above described amount will be reduced by the amount needed to increase the taxable estate of the Deceased Spouse to the largest amount which will result in no federal estate tax being imposed on the estate of the Deceased Spouse.

This amount shall vest immediately on the death of the Deceased Spouse and shall be satisfied by the Trustee in cash, or in kind, or partly in each, with assets of the Deceased Spouse contributed or added to the trust and eligible for the marital deduction. The assets allocated in kind shall be considered to satisfy this amount on the basis of their values at the date or dates of the allocation to the Survivor’s Trust.”

If it includes any language like this, call us. We can ensure your trust meets the needs of your family. Otherwise, you may have a plan in place that leaves your family worse off after you die or in the event that you become incapacitated.

Estate planning isn’t a set it and forget it practice. It’s a living process that supports you in making financial, legal and personal decisions that are right for you, throughout your lifetime. Quality of life is improved when you  face your death with honesty, knowing you will leave the world a better place.

If you’re ready to review your estate plan, we have a 50-point do-it-yourself review checklist available. We also invite you to come into our office for a full plan check-up. Simply call us and mention this article and we can discuss your options. You can reach us at 832.408.0505

This article is a service of Gratia P. Schoemakers, Personal Family Lawyer®. 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 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 to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session.