Law News and Tips
Fred Vilbig © 2020
Identity theft is a big concern in our virtual, technological society. Nefarious people make millions of dollars by stealing your private information and pretending to be you. We use passwords and encrypted software to try to protect ourselves, but these are smart criminals. They know how to work the system.
In a way, identity theft has been with us probably as long as people have been doing business. People would pretend to be someone else to get something valuable. Several movie plots have revolved around this idea: Catch Me If You Can, Face Off, and American Hustle are just a few. (I have to thank my kids for the movie references since I have never seen any of these movies.)
Internet dating sites are also a victim of this kind of thing where the description of the person you think you are meeting doesn’t match the person you actually meet. He’s not an Olympic athlete unless you include drinking Olympia beer as a sport.
A simpler form of identity theft is a forgery. In a forgery, you are pretending to be someone else by signing their name to a document. It’s less elaborate than internet identity theft. You don’t have to dress up and pretend to be someone else. You just have to sign their name. And if what the banks allow for signatures on checks is any indications, you don't even have to try that hard to copy someone’s signature. It’s as if they’ll take just about anything.
That is why we have notaries. Notaries are people commissioned by the State to verify signatures. They affirm that the person signing a document is, in fact, the person supposedly signing that document. If you go to court and a written document is central to your case, you can’t even get the document admitted into evidence unless there is some proof that the document and the signatures are real. If you don’t have a notarized signature, then the people who signed the documents need to go to court to prove that the signature on the document is actually theirs.
With a notarized signature, you don’t have to prove-up the signatures. If the signature is notarized, it is presumed valid. You would have to bring witnesses to prove otherwise.
Normally to notarize a signature, you have to sign a document in the physical presence of a notary. But these are not normal times. Social distancing has become the norm, and that makes notarizing signatures problematic. We recently had a car window will signing to keep our social distance.
But Governor Parson has recently relaxed that requirement. By Executive Order under the declared State of Emergency, we can now do virtual or remote notarization. For our purposes, we have to be able to see the person sign the document through a web-based program, they have to prove they are who they say they are with a picture ID, and after signing the document, they immediately have to send it to the notary. How long we will be able to do this is uncertain, but it relieves some of the stress on people. A lot of people don’t have even the most basic estate planning documents – a will, a power of attorney, or a medical directive – but they are afraid (and rightfully so) to physically meet with us. Now we have an option.
If you need to do some planning, but you were hesitant to take action during the pandemic, give us a call at (314) 241-3963. We are conducting our interviews by phone or by videoconferencing. Based on that conference, we can prepare documents and send them to you for review. After you have had a chance to review the documents to put them in final form, we can now sign them over the internet. Your safety and the safety of our employees is uppermost in our minds.
Fred Vilbig ©2020
On December 20th, President Trump as part of the 2020 Appropriations Act signed the SECURE Act which changed some of the tax rules governing IRAs.I love the way Congress bundles all of these things into a single bill at the end of the year to make us think they are actually being productive. But that’s another column.
In order to understand the changes, it may be helpful to review how IRAs work generally. During employment and prior to reaching 70 ½, the Tax Code allowed us to exclude from income certain amounts that are deposited in individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”) and other qualified plans. As long as the funds are in one of these qualified plans, they grow tax-deferred. Upon reaching 70 ½ the employee is required to withdraw what is called “required minimum distributions” (“RMDs”) which are amounts calculated to entirely distribute the account assets over the expected life of the employee-beneficiary. These RMDs are generally taxable as ordinary income. If the employee-beneficiary died before the complete distribution of the account, a surviving spouse could roll-over the account to a new IRA on a tax-free basis. If there was no surviving spouse, then the designated non-spouse beneficiaries would “inherit” the IRA, and they were allowed to withdraw RMDs over their life expectancies. But if the employee-beneficiary failed to name a beneficiary at all, then the IRA assets are distributable to the decedent’s estate and have to be taken out within 5 years of his or her death. That’s it in a nutshell.
First, let me assure everyone that IRAs and other qualified plans are still excellent vehicles to save for retirement. Income earned during years when you are subject to higher income tax rates grows tax-deferred and is received and taxed during years with lower income tax rates. But the SECURE Act did change some things. You’ll want to talk to your financial planner or your company plan administrator to see how these changes affect you, but here is a very short summary.
Employees can now make retirement plan contributions after age 70 ½. The required beginning date for RMDs is increased from 70 ½ to 72 years of age. And IRA distributions can be taken without penalty for births and adoptions.
All of these changes are supposed to be revenue-neutral, so the way Congress chose to raise revenues to pay for these changes is to require inherited IRAs to be paid out over 10 years instead of the life expectancy of the designated beneficiary.
It is this last change that has the most impact on estate planning. In 1999, the IRS gave us language to allow us to flow IRA distributions through trusts, and all of our trusts include that language. Flowing the distributions through trust is important because inherited IRAs are not protected from creditors, and using a trust can give some asset protection. It used to be for life, but now it will only be for 10 years. I don’t know what we can do to plan around that from an estate planning perspective. It is what it is.
In any event, if you have any questions regarding what these changes (and there are other ones in the law that I am not discussing), please contact your financial advisor or your company plan administrator.I’m sure you’re going to be hearing a lot about these things. But continue to save for retirement.
;Vilbig © 2019
I recently heard from a client about an estate planning mess that could have been avoided. Although this particular story is hearsay, I know from experience that these kinds of things regularly happen.
Bill (these are not their real names) had been married to Julie for years. Together they raised three wonderful children. After the kids were grown, Julie got sick and died, leaving Bill a widower at a young age (relatively speaking).
After Julie’s death, Bill lived alone for several years, but that can be tough. Older singles get isolated. Most of their friends are married, so they can feel like the odd man out socially. So Bill became lonely.
After some time, Bill met Debra. Debra was a lovely lady. Her husband had also died after they had raised two children. Bill and Debra grew to love one another, and they decided to marry. The kids were actually happy to see their parents so happy.
Bill and Debra had a happy life together. They trusted each other completely. They bought a house together; they invested their money together; they had a joint bank account, and they named each other as their beneficiaries on their IRAs.
As time when on, Bill noticed that Debra was forgetting things. It was almost unnoticeable at first, but it grew progressively worse. Debra was finally diagnosed with dementia. Bill took care of her as best he could, but he himself was aging. The stress and strain proved too much, and Bill died. Since Bill and Debra had not done any planning, Debra’s kids had her declared incompetent and opened up a conservatorship to manage her money and pay her bills. Debra did not survive Bill long, and she soon passed away. That’s when Bill’s kids had an unpleasant surprise.
On Bill’s death, everything passed over to Debra, including Bill’s IRA. It wasn’t a malicious thing, but it just happened. So when Debra died, everything went to her children. Nothing was left for Bill’s kids. Debra’s kids could have shared, but they were disinclined. Bill’s kids were very upset, but there wasn’t anything that could be done.
This is just one of many examples of an unfortunate result from lack of good planning. I recently met a young couple with a large family. Although they had thought about it, they had never gotten around to planning their estate. Now they were facing a medical emergency, so that need was immediate.
Although you can’t wrap it up in a nice box and put a pretty bow on it (or maybe you can), I would like to suggest a Christmas present for your family: a well thought out estate plan. It’s not a cool present, but it may be one of the more important things you can give them. Just a thought. Give me a call if you want to talk.
And at the risk of offending some, Merry Christmas and a blessed new year.
Fred Vilbig © 2019
A REAL ESTATE DILEMMA
Some time ago a client with a real estate dilemma called. He had a big tract of land, and now someone wanted to buy it – for a lot of money – for duck hunting. What?
The problem, though, was that his father had given it to him; and his father had given it to him; and his father had…. Well you get the idea. And if he sold it now, he was going to get hit with a million-dollar tax liability – literally. Here’s why, in fairly simple terms.
When you sell something you’ve owned for over a year, you have to pay a 20% tax on your capital gains. Your capital gain is the difference between (i) what you sell your property for and (ii) what is called your “basis.” Your basis is (a) what you paid for the asset (less any depreciation or amortization – never mind about that for now); (b) the date of death value if you inherited the property; or (c) the donor’s basis if it was a gift.
In our situation, all of my client’s ancestors had given the property to children, so his basis was the original 1905 purchase price for the land. Land was cheap back then, so he had a huge capital gain. So what to do?
In meeting with my client, I discovered that he really didn’t need the principal from the sale; he was just looking for retirement income. He didn’t have any children, so he wasn’t concerned about leaving an inheritance to anyone. He was a fairly religious person and was actively involved in his church. So I recommended a charitable remainder unitrust. A what?
A charitable remainder unitrust (a “CRUT”) is an irrevocable trust that is tax-exempt. If a CRUT sells an asset, there is no tax on the sale. With a CRUT, the donor can reserve a kind of an “income” interest over his or her lifetime or for a period of years not to exceed 20. The “income” interest is a fixed percentage of the annually recalculated fair market value of the trust principal. The percentage (called a “unitrust percentage”) must be at least 5% and is capped out based on a math formula. During the donor’s lifetime, he or she receives payments from the unitrust (which are taxable). The principal, though, continues to grow on a tax-free basis like an IRA. On the donor’s death, the principal goes to the designated charity. Pretty nifty under the right circumstances.
The CRUT was just the right vehicle for my client. He was able to transfer the land into a unitrust while retaining the “income” right for his lifetime. Yes, he was taxed on the income, but the principal grew tax-free. When he dies, his church is going to receive a significant gift. Because of that, on creating the CRUT, my client was entitled to a charitable contribution deduction. It isn’t a deduction for 100% of the value of the donated asset. Rather, it is a deduction for what is called the present value of the lifetime stream-of-income. Warning: calculating all of these things can result in headaches. You’ll want to talk to an attorney or an accountant knowledgeable in this area.
I think this was a good outcome. The client was happy. The church was happy. The only losers in this scenario were the ducks. Call if you have any questions.
AT THE END
Fred Vilbig © 2019
End-of-life decisions are tough. Although not always, they tend to be final. Even when we make the right decision objectively, we always second-guess. I’ve had to make those decisions for clients who had no close family members, and even that is tough. But when it is a close family member, it can be heart-wrenching.
I was recently reminded of that with my mother-in-law. She lives in an assisted living facility, and she has dementia. My wife (she’s not going to be happy with me for mentioning her in one of my columns) goes by almost every day to see her and to visit with almost all the other residents. They all light up when she comes in the room.
Some time ago my wife noticed that her mom was getting more and more tired. She would go to bed around six and sleep late. That was unusual for a girl who was raised on a farm, rising early each morning to milk the cows. We knew something was up.
One Friday evening we were heading out of town when her cell phone rang. It was the facility. They had called an ambulance. They said grandma had been exhibiting stroke like symptoms. We met her at the hospital. After examining her (and she was as mad as could be – “Leave me alone!”), the doctor told us that she was having an arrhythmia, one chamber of her heart wasn’t coordinating with another. The solution was a pacemaker. Without it, she would (in a sense) slowly drift off to sleep and eventually die. With it, she would live for several more years.
My wife faced a dilemma. Grandma’s friends have all pretty much passed away. If any are still alive we don’t know it. Grandpa died a few years ago. As I mentioned, my wife visits her almost every day, and we take her to church and out for brunch every Sunday, but grandma is terribly lonely. The doctors were pushing hard to implant the pacemaker.
My wife’s dilemma was this: does she pass on the pacemaker so her mother could die peacefully and join her beloved husband and friends in Heaven; or does she approve the pacemaker and consign her mother to at least a few more lonely years. That is a tough dilemma. In the end, after consulting with her siblings, she approved the pacemaker. But whenever grandma asks for grandpa (she forgets), I know it breaks her heart.
However, it needs to be noted that the only reason that my wife could make these kinds of decisions was that her mother had designated her as her surrogate for health care decisions using a health care durable power of attorney (a “DPOA”). Without taking the time to execute a healthcare DPOA, all of those decisions would’ve been left up to the hospital. I guess it’s normal, but it seemed as if since the doctors could fix the problem, for them at least, there wasn’t even a question. In Missouri, it is presumed that a person wants all of the life extending procedures and machines unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
So if you want to retain some control over these kinds of decisions, you absolutely need to have a health care power of attorney authorizing a trusted loved one or friend to make these decisions when you are no longer able. In addition, a living will gives guidance to your family and friends regarding these final wishes and this can be very comforting.
Please feel free to call me if you want to set up an appointment to discuss this further. It’s the right and responsible thing to do.
Fred L. Vilbig © 2019
Many years ago the firm I was with was approached by a Chicago law firm about merging. I admit the managing partner of the firm (I’ll call him Joe) at a wedding in my wife’s hometown. He seemed nice enough, but pretty intense.
The next week he called me. We started the process of investigating a possible merger. This is called “due diligence.” There were meetings between the partners, financial records review, and overall philosophies to consider and compare. It takes a lot of time and effort to think through something like that. You don’t want to make a mistake since undoing a merger is even worse than doing one.
We were almost done with all of that due diligence at the beginning of summer. Joe told us that we would need to take a short pause because his partners were making him take a vacation. Evidently, he hadn’t taken a vacation in years, and his partners were concerned about the amount of stress in his life. He and his family were going to Florida. He said he’d be in touch when he got back.
I was expecting a call after about two weeks. Nothing. Three weeks went by, and there was still nothing. Soon a month had passed, and still nothing. Finally, I called to see what was going on. I got his secretary, and in a very somber tone, she said that she would have someone call me back.
A day or so later I got a call from one of Joe’s partners. He told me that while sitting on the beach on vacation, Joe had suffered a massive heart attack and had died. We were stunned, to say the least. Evidently, the stress of taking a vacation had been too much for him and his heart.
Vacation season is one of those times of the year when people need to think about estate planning. If parents with small children are traveling alone, they need to make sure that everything is in order. When kids go on vacations alone or study abroad for the summer, they at least need to have a power of attorney - to handle financial matters when they are out of town or unconscious - and a medical directive - so someone can make medical decisions when they can't.
There is an old saying - "An ounce of precaution is worth a pound of cure." So a little planning can go a long way. Give me a call.
Fred L. Vilbig © 2019
If you have young children, you probably don’t want them to have a lot of money dropped in their laps all at once. If they’re under 18, that means a court-supervised conservatorship. The court would have to approve investments and distributions. Courts typically will only allow insured investments that don’t keep up with inflation, such as money market funds. And all of the trust distributions must be approved by the court or the conservator can be personally liable. And you’ll have to hire an attorney to do anything.
Even if your children are over 18, they may not be ready to handle large sums (and $10,000 can be huge to some people). The frontal lobe of the brain is the part of the brain that asks, “is this a good idea?” before you jump off a cliff or do something else thoughtlessly. In general, that part of the brain doesn’t fully form until you reach 25 years of age or so. That’s why teenagers and young adults make so many bad decisions.
Another problem with a large inheritance is that he can actually ruin a child. If they receive a sizable sum outright to early, it can ruin their work ethic. I have seen that happen all too often.
And then there is the child with special needs. If one of your children is receiving (or is likely to receive in the future) some governmental benefits, any inheritance can disqualify the beneficiary until all that money is gone.
In all of these cases, distributions in trust for the benefit of the child makes perfect sense. Some clients worry that setting up a trust requires a trust company of some sort. However, an individual family member can serve as the trustee. Even when the kids reach an age where you think they’ll be responsible, you might want to leave the assets in trust, but let your child be his or her own trustee. As long as they are not the ones who created the trust, the trust assets will be protected if there’s a divorce or in the case of a lawsuit.
And in the case of a child with special needs, in order not to cause them to lose their governmental benefits, restrictions need to be put onto the use of those assets to just supplement, but not replace, any government benefits. Under those circumstances, a properly drafted special needs trust is critical.
In all of these cases, creating a trust for the benefit of a child makes perfect sense. If you want to learn more about trusts, feel free to order my book by clicking here or on Amazon. If you want to set up an appointment to see if a trust is right for your children, please call my office at (314) 241-3963. I look forward to hearing from you.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
The holidays are great. The food, getting together with family, other people’s decorations. Yes, I said other people’s decorations. We have a peak on our roof that is about 30 feet up, and it must be at least 100 feet down. Yes, I’ll get the decorations up, but it is a death defying feat if I say so myself.
So where was I? Oh, yes: the holidays. My wife’s favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it just involves cooking a big meal, and she’s a great cook. That’s lucky for my kids since I am not such a great cook, and it really stresses me out trying to get everything on the table at the same time while it is still hot.
But either at Thanksgiving or Christmas, the family gets together for a big meal. The out-of-town kids fly or drive in, and the in-town kids come over for a full house like it used to be. It seems that our holiday dinners last a long time with people staying around the table reminiscing about things. My wife and I often listen to the stories about what the kids did when they were young. Later we’ll check with each other and find out that neither of us knew anything about those things. Often we’re surprised, but at least no one got seriously hurt.
In addition to all of the good times that we have at the holidays, they are also a good time to check up on family members, particularly our parents. For some, we see our parents on a regular basis. We may not notice the little, subtle changes that may be taking place. For others who see their parents only once or twice a year, the accumulation of these little changes can be shocking.
When you’re home for the holidays, you may want to pay attention. Are they eating right? Are they dressing appropriately for the weather? As we age, we all get a little forgetful, but are they getting forgetful to the point that it is a problem? Have they gotten lost when going to the store? Do you see big changes in habits that seem to be ways of compensating for something? Did they use to be social, and now they are a homebody? Do you see big changes in their personality?
As we age, there are changes, but the question is whether they are creating problems. If not, it might still be a good idea to check to make sure that everything is in order. Do they have a will and/or a trust? Do they have a durable power of attorney? Do they have a medical directive that includes a medical power of attorney and a living will? And it’s important for the children to know who is going to be primarily responsible if something happens.
These may be tough, maybe even awkward questions to ask, but they are important. Surprises are not welcome, particularly when it is too late to fix things. In prior columns, I have written about times we have fortunately discovered problems before it was too late. And in other columns, I have written about those times we were too late to fix the problem directly, but we were able to find ways to work around the problem. But there are times when we discover the problems too late to fix other than by going to court, and the client ends up paying a lot of money in legal fees. So even though the questions may be tough and awkward, not asking them can end up costing a lot of money and aggravation.
So enjoy your holidays, but you might want to ask some questions … before it’s too late.
NOT WHAT SHE HOPED FOR
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
Joe (these are not the real names) came to see me about estate planning. He knew that he needed to do something, but he didn’t really know what. Sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know, but at least he knew he needed to do something more.
Some time ago, his wife, Leslie, decided she wanted to do some estate planning. She didn’t know any attorneys, but she had heard about online estate planning websites. She went to LegalZoom and liked what she saw. She thought she’d need a will, a general power of attorney, and a medical directive. So she worked those up, printed them, signed them in front of a notary, and she was done.
But time can change things. Leslie had been a very intelligent person holding down an impressive job before she retired. After that, she started forgetting things – little things at first, but over time, more and more. She had trouble thinking through problems, big ones at first, but soon even the little stuff. She started making some bad decisions like going outside in a heavy coat in the heat of summer or wearing shorts outside in the depths of winter. Or she might just go outside and stand in the rain totally oblivious to it. If she had just had momentary, isolated lapses, that would’ve been one thing, but it all became the regular course of daily life. Joe knew something was wrong.
He took Leslie to the doctor. The doctor confirmed Joe’s worst fears: it all pointed to Alzheimer’s. All of a sudden, Joe’s entire world, his future, was turned topsy-turvy.
But Joe thought everything would be okay legally. After all, Leslie had prepared her legal documents. But Joe had heard about probate and trusts , so he called me to see if he needed to do something more to protect Leslie if he died first; after all, he was 80. He wanted to do everything he could to protect her. A good guy.
He came to see me, and we discussed the situation. I recommended a trust to take care of Leslie and avoid probate. He liked the idea. We could set up a trust, and using Leslie’s power of attorney, Joe could transfer assets to the trust to avoid probate. So at least that much was covered. But there were still problems.
Joe realized that when Leslie prepared the power of attorney and medical directive, she had not included any backups. She had only named Joe. Due to his age and health, Joe was very concerned about what would happen to Leslie if he died first. Since Leslie had not provided a backup, when Joe died, without a court order, no one could make living arrangements for her; no one could talk to a doctor about or make decisions regarding her medical needs; and no one could administer Joe’s large IRA for Leslie’s benefit.
Joe’s only real option was to have Leslie judicially declared incompetent, get himself appointed as Leslie’s Guardian and conservator, and write a will identifying who should serve as successor guardians and conservatives. The court would be required to follow his suggestions, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
So Joe was faced with the unenviable choice of having his beloved wife paraded into court to be declared incompetent (and incur the costs for that) or just hope that she died first. A terrible conundrum to say the least.
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
Two recent high profile deaths highlighted one of the reasons people should consider using a trust for their estate plans.
On June 8th, Anthony Bourdain died.He was 61. He has been described as one of the most influential chefs in the world. Mr. Bourdain’s death was tragic because it was a suicide which is so tragic for everyone involved, but particularly for those who were close to the decedent. You always question whether there was something you could have done. It’s very difficult.
But very soon after his death, there were reports in the press about how he had taken care of his daughter with his estate. It’s not that it was a fortune, but it was just a discussion of how he took care of an important person in his life.
The second high-profile death was that of Richard “Old Man” Harris on June 25.He was the patriarch of the family on the TV show “Pawn Stars.”His death wasn’t necessarily a surprise. He was 77 and had battled Parkinson’s disease for some time. Still it’s always sad to lose someone you love.
Much like in the case of Anthony Bourdain, soon after his death, articles began to appear in the press regarding his estate plan. Evidently in 2017, he amended his will to cut his son, Christopher (and his children!), out of his will. We don’t know why, but that didn’t stop the press from speculating. Who needs those kinds of things aired in the press for the vultures to pick at?
And that brings me to my point: privacy. Apparently both Anthony Bourdain and Richard Harris planned their estates using wills. When a person dies, his or her will has to be filed with the local probate court. With a little ingenuity, people (such as reporters) can get a peek at it, and then what should be private becomes public.
With a trust, everything is private unless a lawsuit makes it public. The trust beneficiaries are given a copy of the trust and accountings, but the only people who are in the know are the ones who have a need to know. That way all of the family business is kept in the family where it belongs. That’s a better plan!
To talk about planning your estate using a trust, feel free to contact me to take a closer look.
Want to avoid problems with your estate? Estate planning can avoid this type of situation.