LegalJourney Blog

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Preserving and Protecting Documents Is Part of Healthy Estate Planning

In the unsettled time after a loved one’s death, imagine the added stress on the family if the loved one died without a will or any instructions on distributing his or her assets.  Now, imagine the even greater stress to grieving survivors if they know a will exists but they cannot find it!  It is not enough to prepare a will and other estate planning documents like trusts, health care directives and powers of attorney.  To ensure that your family clearly understands your wishes after death, you must also take good care to preserve and protect all of your estate planning documents.

Did you know that the original, signed version of your will is the only valid version?  If your original signed will cannot be found, the probate court may assume that you intended to revoke your will.  If the probate court makes that decision, then your assets will be distributed as if you never had a will in the first place.

Where should you keep your original signed will?  There are several safe options – the best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances.

You can keep your will at home, in a fireproof safe.  This is the lowest-cost option, since all you need to do is purchase a well-constructed fireproof document safe.  Also, keeping your will at home gives you easy access in case you want to make changes to the document.  There are two main disadvantages to keeping your will at home:

  • You may neglect to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, which increases the risk it will be destroyed by fire, flood, or someone’s intentional or accidental actions.
  • Your will could be difficult to find in the event of your death, unless you give clear instructions to several people on how to find it, which then creates a risk of privacy invasion.

You can keep your will in a safety deposit box.  Most banks have safety deposit boxes of various sizes available to rent for a monthly fee.  Banks, of course, tend to be more secure than private homes, which is one primary advantage.  Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, then after your death, only the Executor of your estate may access the original will.  Thus, the will is strongly protected against alteration or destruction, because family members may have access to a copy but only the Executor will have access to the all-important original.

If you do keep your will and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box, try to do so at the same bank where you keep your accounts and inform your executor of its location.  This will streamline the financial accounting process.

You can also keep your original will and other estate planning documents at your lawyer’s office.    Law firms often have systems for long-term document storage.  However, keep in mind that the law firm may dissolve before the willmaker’s death, which can make it difficult to track down your will.  

You may also be able to store your will and other documents online.  Many large financial institutions have begun offering long-term digital storage of important documents.  However, any electronic version of your original will is – by definition – a copy, not the original.  So, you still must find a safe place to store the original, signed and witnessed will.  Online storage “safes” may be an excellent back-up, but you must still find a secure place to store the paper originals.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Family Business: Preserving Your Legacy for Generations to Come

Your family-owned business is not just one of your most significant assets, it is also your legacy. Both must be protected by implementing a transition plan to arrange for transfer to your children or other loved ones upon your retirement or death.

More than 70 percent of family businesses do not survive the transition to the next generation. Ensuring your family does not fall victim to the same fate requires a unique combination of proper estate and tax planning, business acumen and common-sense communication with those closest to you. Below are some steps you can take today to make sure your family business continues from generation to generation.

  • Meet with an estate planning attorney to develop a comprehensive plan that includes a will and/or living trust. Your estate plan should account for issues related to both the transfer of your assets, including the family business and estate taxes.
  • Communicate with all family members about their wishes concerning the business. Enlist their involvement in establishing a business succession plan to transfer ownership and control to the younger generation. Include in-laws or other non-blood relatives in these discussions. They offer a fresh perspective and may have talents and skills that will help the company.
  • Make sure your succession plan includes:  preserving and enhancing “institutional memory”, who will own the company, advisors who can aid the transition team and ensure continuity, who will oversee day-to-day operations, provisions for heirs who are not directly involved in the business, tax saving strategies, education and training of family members who will take over the company and key employees.
  • Discuss your estate plan and business succession plan with your family members and key employees. Make sure everyone shares the same basic understanding.
  • Plan for liquidity. Establish measures to ensure the business has enough cash flow to pay taxes or buy out a deceased owner’s share of the company. Estate taxes are based on the full value of your estate. If your estate is asset-rich and cash-poor, your heirs may be forced to liquidate assets in order to cover the taxes, thus removing your “family” from the business.
  • Implement a family employment plan to establish policies and procedures regarding when and how family members will be hired, who will supervise them, and how compensation will be determined.
  • Have a buy-sell agreement in place to govern the future sale or transfer of shares of stock held by employees or family members.
  • Add independent professionals to your board of directors.

You’ve worked very hard over your lifetime to build your family-owned enterprise. However, you should resist the temptation to retain total control of your business well into your golden years. There comes a time to retire and focus your priorities on ensuring a smooth transition that preserves your legacy – and your investment – for generations to come.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.

 

 


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

In planning your estate, you most likely have concerned yourself with “big picture” issues. Who inherits what? Do I need a living trust? However, there are numerous details that are often overlooked, and which can drastically impact the distribution of your estate to your intended beneficiaries. Listed below are some of the most common overlooked estate planning issues.

Liquid Cash: Is there enough available cash to cover the estate’s operating expenses until it is settled? The estate may have to pay attorneys’ fees, court costs, probate expenses, debts of the decedent, or living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents. Your estate plan should estimate the cash needs and ensure there are adequate cash resources to cover these expenses.

Tax Planning: Even if your estate is exempt from federal estate tax, there are other possible taxes that should be anticipated by your estate plan. There may be estate or death taxes at the state level. The estate may have to pay income taxes on investment income earned before the estate is settled. Income taxes can be paid out of the liquid assets held in the estate. Death taxes may be paid by the estate from the amount inherited by each beneficiary. 

Executor’s Access to Documents: The executor or estate administrator must be able to access the decedent’s important papers in order to locate assets and close up the decedent’s affairs. Also, creditors must be identified and paid before an estate can be settled. It is important to leave a notebook or other instructions listing significant assets, where they are located, identifying information such as serial numbers, account numbers or passwords. If the executor is not left with this information, it may require unnecessary expenditures of time and money to locate all of the assets. This notebook should also include a comprehensive list of creditors, to help the executor verify or refute any creditor claims.

Beneficiary Designations: Many assets can be transferred outside of a will or trust, by simply designating a beneficiary to receive the asset upon your death. Life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, and motor vehicles are some of the assets that can be transferred directly to a beneficiary. To make these arrangements, submit a beneficiary designation form to the financial institution, retirement plan or motor vehicle department. Be sure to keep the beneficiary designations current, and provide instructions to the executor listing which assets are to be transferred in this manner.

Fund the Living Trust: Unfortunately, many people establish living trusts, but fail to fully implement them, thereby reducing or eliminating the trust’s potential benefits. To be subject to the trust, as opposed to the probate court, an asset’s ownership must be legally transferred into the trust. If legal title to homes, vehicles or financial accounts is not transferred into the trust, the trust is of no effect and the assets must be probated.

 

 


Monday, July 16, 2012

Legal Mistakes That Cost Entrepreneurs Time, Money and Headaches…And How to Avoid Them

Entrepreneurs must navigate through a maze of legal issues and decisions when launching a new business. At the outset, you may think some seem inconsequential – but, tragically, that would likely be your first of many mistakes. The choices you make today will have lasting effects on the viability and profitability of your new business venture. Below are some of the most common mistakes made by first-time entrepreneurs, and what you can do to avoid making them yourself.

 

Choosing the Wrong Business Structure

The type of business entity you select will affect your liability exposure, income tax obligations and opportunities to raise capital throughout the duration of your venture. Sole proprietorships, C-corporations, S-corporations and limited liability companies (LLC) all have their advantages and drawbacks. Sole proprietorships are simple to start up, but leave your personal assets vulnerable and offer few tax advantages. C-corporations and S-corporations shield your personal assets, and each afford different tax advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, maintaining the protection afforded by the corporate business structure requires a certain amount of record-keeping and forms which must be filed with governmental agencies. LLCs offer you liability protection, but may not be the best choice depending on various factors, including taxes, ownership structure and, in some states, professional licensure. Often, the corporate structure is the most advantageous, but this decision really should be made in consultation with a business or tax attorney.

 

The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” – A Handshake and Your Word

Your word may be your honor, but a written contract is the only way to be sure all parties share a mutual understanding regarding their obligations. Whether it is your best client, that independent contractor you’ve been courting, or vendors you have known for years, do not assume everything will go according to plan. Putting your agreement in writing not only ensures that everyone’s expectations are clear, it is also valuable evidence in the courtroom, should things not proceed according to plan. Bottom line – get it in writing!

 

Adding Partners Without a Written Agreement

It’s easy to sweep this one aside when you are passionately focused on the work of getting your business off the ground. And those new partners likely share your same passion. However, until a detailed written Partnership Agreement is drafted and signed, you may be unclear about each other’s expectations in the short term, or, if your business is wildly successful, tied up in protracted, long-term litigation, to establish who owns what (Facebook comes to mind). Redirect some of that passion, and benefit from the goodwill it creates, to negotiate a Partnership Agreement early on that covers responsibilities, ownership structure, provisions for transferring ownership, and what happens when there’s a disagreement about the direction of the company.

 

Sharing Ownership 50/50

Establishing equal percentages of ownership in the company sounds like a fair and reasonable arrangement. However, this type of situation makes it difficult to bring on investors, and can bring the company to a standstill if the partners cannot agree on a decision. Instead, issue shares in the company in such a manner that investors can be added later; and make sure those shares are distributed to the founders with at least a 51/49 split, giving the majority shareholder the authority to make executive decisions even if there is a stalemate.

 

 

Note: LegalJourney Blog posts are designed to provide informational summaries, but do not include all aspects, issues, statutes or legal rulings. If you have additional questions based on what you read on the LegalJourney Blog, please contact the LegalJourney Law Firm or seek the advice of another qualified Florida attorney


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex.  Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will.   However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate.  Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.  

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account.  In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will.  Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.

 

Contact the LegalJourney Law Firm to schedule a consultation with an Attorney to discuss Your Estate Plan needs today.

 

 


Monday, June 18, 2012

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

Estate planning is important for everyone. We simply don’t know when something tragic could happen such as sudden death or an accident that could leave us incapacitated. With proper planning, families who are dealing with the unexpected experience fewer headaches and less expense associated with managing affairs after incapacity or administering an estate after death.

If a person fails to do any planning and becomes involved in a debilitating accident or passes away, each state has laws that govern who will inherit assets, become guardians of minor children, make medical decisions for an incapacitated person, dispose of a person’s remains, visit the person in the hospital, and more. In some states, the spouse and any children are given top priority for inheritance rights. In the case of incapacity, spouses are normally granted guardianship over incapacitated spouse, though this requires a lengthy and expensive guardianship proceeding.

In today’s world, increasing numbers of couples are choosing to spend their lives together but aren’t getting married, either because they aren’t allowed to under the laws of their state, such as in the case of gay and lesbian couples, or simply because they choose not to. However, most states don’t recognize unmarried partners as spouses. In order to be given legal rights that married couples receive automatically, unmarried couples need to do special planning in order to protect each other.

In general, unmarried individuals need three basic documents to ensure their rights are protected:

  1. A Will – A will tells who should inherit your property when you pass away, who you want your executor to be, and who will become guardians of any minor children. These issues are all especially important for unmarried individuals. In most states, an unmarried partner does not have inheritance rights, so any property owned by his or her deceased partner would go to other family members. Also, in the case of many gay and lesbian couples, the living partner is not necessarily the biological or adoptive parent of any minor children, which could lead to custody disputes in an already very difficult time.  Therefore, it’s critical to nominate guardians for minor children.
     
  2. A power of attorney – A power of attorney (for financial matters) dictates who is authorized to manage your financial affairs in the event you become incapacitated. Otherwise, it can be very difficult or impossible for the non-disabled partner to manage the disabled partner’s affairs without going through a lengthy guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.
     
  3. Advance healthcare directives – A power of attorney for healthcare, informs caregivers as to who is responsible for making healthcare decisions for someone in the event that a person cannot make them for himself, such as in the event of a serious accident or a condition like dementia.  Another document, called a living will, provides directions on life support issues.

Estate planning is undoubtedly more important for unmarried couples than those who are married, since there aren’t built-in protections in the law to protect them and their loved ones.  It’s imperative that unmarried couples establish proper planning to avoid undue hardship, expense and aggravation.

 

Contact the LegalJourney Law Firm to schedule a consultation with an Attorney to discuss Your Estate Plan needs today.

 


Monday, June 4, 2012

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney? Or Do I Need Both?

Many people are confused by these two important estate planning documents. It’s important to understand the functions of each and ensure you are fully protected by incorporating both of these documents into your overall estate plan.

A “living will,” often called an advance health care directive, is a legal document setting forth your wishes for end-of-life medical care, in the event you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. The safest way to ensure that your own wishes will determine your future medical care is to execute an advance directive stating what your wishes are. In some states, the advance directive is only operative if you are diagnosed with a terminal condition and life-sustaining treatment merely artificially prolongs the process of dying, or if you are in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

A durable power of attorney for health care, also referred to as a healthcare proxy, is a document in which you name another person to serve as your health care agent. This person is authorized to speak on your behalf in order to consent to – or refuse – medical treatment if your doctor determines that you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. A durable power of attorney for health care can be operative at any time you designate, not just when your condition is terminal.

For maximum protection, it is strongly recommended that you have both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. The power of attorney affords you flexibility, with an agent who can express your wishes and respond accordingly to any changes in your medical condition. Your agent should base his or her decisions on any written wishes you have provided, as well as familiarity with you. The advance directive is necessary to guide health care providers in the event your agent is unavailable. If your agent’s decisions are ever challenged, the advance directive can also serve as evidence that your agent is acting in good faith and in accordance with your wishes.  

 

 

 


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Estate Planning: The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

The Irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust has proven to be a highly effective estate planning tool for many older Americans. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you and your family. This brief overview is designed to give you a starting point for discussions with your loved ones and legal counsel.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust enables an individual or a married couple to transfer some of their assets into a trust, to hold and manage the assets throughout their lifetime. Upon their deaths, the remainder of the assets will be transferred to the heirs in accordance with the provisions of the trust.

This process is best explained by an example. Let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both retired, own stocks and savings accounts valued at $300,000. Their current living expenses are covered by income from these investments, plus Social Security and their retirement benefits. Should either one of them ever be admitted to a skilled nursing facility, the Smiths likely will not have enough money left over to cover living and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.

Continuing the above example, the Smiths can opt to transfer all or a portion of their investments into a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. Under the terms of the trust, all investment income will continue to be paid to the Smiths during their lifetimes. Should one of them ever need Medicaid coverage for nursing home care, the income would then be paid to the other spouse. Upon the deaths of both spouses, the trust is terminated and the remaining assets are distributed to the Smiths’ children or other heirs as designated in the trust. As long as the Smiths are alive, their assets are protected and they enjoy a continued income stream throughout their lives.

However, the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is not without its pitfalls. Creation of such a trust can result in a period of ineligibility for benefits under the Medicaid program. The length of time varies, according to the value of the assets transferred and the date of the transfer. Following expiration of the ineligibility period, the assets held within the trust are generally protected and will not be factored in when calculating assets for purposes of qualification for Medicaid benefits. Furthermore, transferring assets into an irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust keeps them out of both spouses’ reach for the duration of their lives.

Deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you is a complex process that must take into consideration many factors regarding your assets, income, family structure, overall health, life expectancy, and your wishes regarding how property should be handled after your death. An experienced elder law or Medicaid attorney can help guide you through the decision making process.
 

Contact the LegalJourney Law Firm to schedule a consultation with an Attorney to discuss establishing an Irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust today.

 


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Free Online Seminar - Estate Planning 101

 

Seminars

While nobody wants to think about death or disability, establishing an estate plan is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. Proper estate planning not only puts you in charge of your finances, it can also spare your loved ones the expense, delay and frustration associated with managing your affairs when you pass away or become disabled. The LegalJourney Law Firm believes that the key to establishing an effective estate plan is working with a law firm that educates and guides each client through their legal journey. As part of the firm's education initiative, throughout the year Attorney Karnardo Garnett will offer in-person and virtual seminars.

Free Online Seminar: 

1. Estate Planning 101 - Saturday, May 26, 2012 9 AM - 10 AM 

Topics of discussion will include:

  • Estate planning terminology;
  • What happens when you die in Florida with/without an estate plan; 
  • Common mistakes made; and
  • Five documents that everyone should have.

Register Today!

A referral is the greatest compliment I can receive

 

 


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Basics of Guardianships (Conservatorships)

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. A tragic accident. A sudden, devastating illness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if a loved one became incapacitated and unable to take care of himself? While many associate incapacity with a comatose state, an individual, while technically functioning, may be considered incapacitated if he cannot communicate through speech or gestures and is unable sign a document, even with a mark. In some cases, an individual may have no trouble communicating, but may not be able to fully appreciate the consequences of their decisions and hence may be deemed to lack capacity. With proper incapacity planning which includes important legal documents such as a durable power of attorney, healthcare proxy and living will, the individuals named in such documents are empowered to make necessary financial and medial decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person without obtaining additional legal authorization. Without proper incapacity planning documents, even a spouse or adult child cannot make financial and healthcare decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual. In such cases, a guardianship (or conservatorship) proceeding is necessary so that loved ones are able to provide for their financial and medical healthcare needs.

A guardianship is a court proceeding where a judge appoints a responsible individual to take care of the adult in question and manage his or her finances and make medical decisions. Once appointed by the court, the guardian will take over the care of the ward (disabled adult). When appropriate, the court may designate an individual “guardian of the assets” to handle the disabled person’s financial needs and another person “guardian of the person” to manage his healthcare needs. One person can also serve as both. If you are planning to serve as someone’s financial guardian, be prepared to possibly post a bond that serves as a safeguard for the ward’s estate.

To minimize the incidence of mismanagement or fraud, the court holds the guardian legally responsible for providing it with regular reports, called an accounting. Additionally, the guardian may not be able to make any major life or medical decisions without the court’s approval and consent. For example, if you have been named the guardian for a relative, you may not be able to sell his or her house without the approval of the court.

The best safeguard to avoid going through court to get a guardianship would be to establish a durable power of attorney over your finances and healthcare, authorizing a family member or trusted individual to act on your behalf in case of incapacity. While your agents have a legal obligation to act in your best interest they won’t have to post an expensive bond either. Make sure the power of attorney clearly states that it will be effective even if the principal becomes incapacitated.

Contact the LegalJourney Law Firm to schedule a consultation with an Attorney to discuss establishing your durable power of attorney today.

 

 


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