Law News and Tips
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.
AFTER MOM DIES?
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
I recently met with a client whose mom had died. I’d written his mom’s trust almost 20 years ago, and now we had to administer it.
The first thing I always want to do is I want the named trustee to find out what assets were actually in the trust.When we do a trust plan, I always give clients a funding letter explaining how to transfer assets into their trust, but things get missed.This may or may not include joint assets which automatically pass to the surviving joint owner, if there is one.We are only interested in those assets that were only in the decedent’s name or where the decedent was the last surviving joint owner.
If there are assets outside the trust, then we need to determine whether we can do a small estate or we have to do a full estate. For instance, many people overlook their cars, as this client had, but as long as the total value of the probate assets is less than $40,000, we can administer those assets by simply filing an affidavit and the original will (if there is one). It’s simple and easy to do.If the probate assets are over $40,000, then we will need to do a full probate, and that discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
I always recommend that we file a decedent’s will. In addition to a trust, I always have my clients execute what we call a “pour over will.” This works kind of like a safety net for probate assets. If we had to open a full probate estate, the pour over will would simply scoop up those assets and pour them over into the trust. Even when we think that there aren’t any non-trust assets, we file a will in case assets are discovered later. A will is void if it isn’t filed with the probate court within a year of a person’s death, so we want to just be careful.
I also suggest that we publish a notice of trust. This is a notice published in a legal paper just saying that the client died, and there is a trust. What that does is it notifies creditors that if they have a claim, they need to file it with the trustee within six months of the publication of the notice. Without a notice, the claims period is one year. If anyone has a claim against the decedent, they would have to file within six months (or one year without the notice) of the notice publication date or be barred from filing the claim.
We then talked about taxes. If there is a surviving spouse, then he or she just files a tax return including all of the couple’s joint income. If there’s not a surviving spouse, then the fiduciary has to file a tax return for the decedent reporting income and paying taxes incurred up to the date of death. That is filed using the decedent’s Social Security number. Whether there is a surviving spouse or not, if there is real estate to be sold or if it is anticipated that the trust or estate will earn more than $600 before things get wrapped up, the fiduciary needs to get an employer identification number (and “EIN”). Any amounts held by the trust after death will need to use that EIN. And when real estate is sold, the title company is going to insist on having an EIN. And if the trust has more than $600 of taxable income, then a Form 1041 will have to be filed.
One of the more complicated things in administering the trust is the need for an accounting. Missouri law requires it if a beneficiary asks for it, but it just makes sense anyway. You need to start with the date of death value on all of the assets; show all of the income, payments, and adjustments made during the course of administration; and then come up with the remaining balance at the end showing who gets what. A thorough accounting can avoid a lot of problems at the end.
As you can see, there is a lot to administering a trust. If you want some direction, give us a call.
PLANNING FOR DIGITAL ASSETS
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
As I’m writing this, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is in the middle of testifying before Congress about a data breach of some sort. To be honest, I haven’t really been following all of the reports on this situation, so I won’t pretend to understand what all is involved in this. But I do know that Americans have surrendered a huge amount of privacy to digital businesses. One study found that even with your cell phone off, the GPS on your phone can still track almost everywhere you go. And people put all kinds of personal stuff on line, and it really isn’t private.
That started me thinking about estate planning for your digital assets. More and more of our financial information is on line. Most people buy things on line which requires using credit cards or debit cards. Some people pay bills on line. A lot of people do on-line banking. And then people have all kinds of social media accounts that may have private information or pictures on them.
The question is, what happens to all of that when you die? I’ve had widows and widowers who knew their deceased spouse’s username and password. They have continued to use the deceased spouse’s accounts for quite some time after their death, even investment accounts. I understand the practicality of that, but I don’t endorse it.
The problem arises when no one knows the decedent’s username and password (or whatever the access procedure calls for). There are lots of digital pirates sailing the virtual sea. It’s not uncommon for one of those pirates to commandeer a digital account, steal the information, and run up bills. Your estate in the end might not end up being liable for those, but it can create a real headache for your personal representative or trustee (your “fiduciary”).
So what’s a person to do? First, you need to pick a fiduciary who has some working knowledge of digital finance and social media. They need to be comfortable working in the digital world. You have to name them in your will or trust. It may be that you want to have one fiduciary to handle your regular assets and another to handle the digital assets. Your call.
Next (or maybe even simultaneously) you need to make a list of your digital accounts, the user name, and the password. If a particular digital account has some special access procedure, you need to include that information on your list. The problem with all of this is that I end up changing usernames and passwords fairly frequently. In particular, I forget passwords and have to change them. So this list needs to be fairly accessible.
There are apps you can use to store all of that information. I am not endorsing any of these, but the ones I have heard about are PasswordBox, PasswordSafe, and SecureSafe.There are many more. If you’re old fashioned (or tech-challenged) like me, then maybe having a paper list in a safe or a Word document on your computer can work too. Just make sure that your digital fiduciary knows how to access that information. I’ve put a sample table at the end of this blog if you want to use that.
And when you’re doing all of this, be sure to investigate the particular terms and conditions of the digital accounts. For instance, Facebook has a way of deleting digital information or notifying certain people you have designated if your account remains inactive too long. Google has something similar. Twitter is much more draconian: it requires, among other things, a death certificate, a government issued ID, and a signed statement from a personal representative (which may require that you open a probate estate).
So planning for digital assets does require work, but besides the basic will or trust, it is work that you have to do. If you have any questions, contact me.
DIGITAL ACCOUNT LIST
|Digital Account||Username||Password||Special Instructions|
RESOLUTIONS AND TAXES
Every year when the New Year rolls around, we all talk about making resolutions. We make resolutions to improve our appearance and physical health. We make resolutions to become better people. We make resolutions to improve our finances. I saw one study that says that people achieve less than 10% of their New Year’s resolutions. I wonder if it’s even that high.
I would like to propose a resolution for the New Year (I know this will be published in late January, but we had the new tax law to deal with). I want people to resolve to update their estate plans, and the new tax law provides an incentive. Here’s why.
The federal estate tax exemption used to be $600,000. With homes and life insurance and retirement benefits, a lot of people got caught by this tax. We wrote a lot of estate plans with tax planning included, which was the right thing to do at the time.
A typical plan for a married couple involved two separate trusts. We used two trusts to make administration simpler on the death of the first spouse to die. The trusts were generally equal in value. Every year or so we wanted to look at the assets in the separate trusts to make sure they were still generally equal, and the clients were supposed to periodically rebalance the trusts by shifting assets from one to the other where possible.
On the death of the first spouse to die, the assets in his or her trust would be distributed first to a tax-sheltered trust up to the amount of the exemption. The trustee of that trust (typically the surviving spouse) was required to distribute all of the income to the beneficiary. The surviving spouse was almost always entitled annually to demand a distribution of 5% of the trust for no reason at all. In addition, the trustee could use the principal for the health, education, maintenance, and support of the spouse in the trustee’s discretion. The amounts in the tax-sheltered trust would avoid estate taxes even on the death of the second of the spouses to die, provided that the trust was properly administered. Clients generally felt that these restrictions were reasonable enough to avoid estate taxes. Any amounts in excess of the exemption would be distributable to a marital trust that could be subject to estate taxes on the death of the second spouse to die.
The problem with this plan is that the tax-sheltered trust was an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts are taxable. They have to file tax returns. Failure to file the return can result in penalties and interest. And these trusts can generate taxes on trapped capital gains. Taxes on trust income are particularly bad because although the rates are comparable to individual rates, they kick in very quickly. For instance, any trust income over $11,950 will be taxed at 39.6%.
With the new tax law, the exemption amount is around $11 million. A married couple can avoid taxes on approximately $22 million. It is estimated that only two in every 100,000 people will be subject to federal estate tax. What that means is that for most married couples, an estate plan with tax planning is not only unnecessary, but it can also end up costing money.
Another problem with these old plans is that the separate assets of spouses can be liable for the debts of the individual spouse.Jointly held marital assets are protected from the claims of the creditors of either individual spouse. In 2011, the Missouri legislature passed a law allowing joint, marital trusts to be protected from the claims of individual spouses as well. Separate trusts could be liable for the debts of an individual spouse.
I would like to propose a resolution with couples with old estate plans: update your plan. Don’t leave the surviving spouse with a headache.When one of you dies, it probably is not a good time to deal with this sort of thing.
It’s the right thing to do. I’ll wait for your call.
You’ve heard the expression, “It’s better to be lucky than to be good?” Well, John was lucky. He was good too, but the lucky part was the biggest thing. But being a religious guy, he knew that luck had nothing to do with it. More on that later.
John was in advertising. He’d worked hard. Over time he had moved up in his company, and they had made him a partner. Not a big partner, but still a partner. That was the hard work part.
His firm had a good reputation, and when an advertising firm from London was looking for a St. Louis partner, they found John’s firm. They made John and John’s partners an offer they really couldn’t refuse. After taxes, John netted $5 million in the company shares. That was the lucky part.
Now for the religious part: he knew this was a gift. He knew that nothing just happens by chance, so the question was, what should he do with this gift? He couldn’t just give it away since he and his wife needed the income for retirement. He also had a pretty big tax liability he was facing, so he needed to do some planning.
He was working with a financial planner at the time. After talking this through, the planner recommended that John and his wife set up a charitable remainder unitrust, a CRUT. A CRUT allows a donor to make an irrevocable gift of a remainder interest while retaining the right to receive annual payments of a percentage of the value of the CRUT principal. Since there is an irrevocable gift involved, John and his wife were entitled to a charitable contribution deduction for a portion (though not all) of the value of the assets transferred to the CRUT. In addition, since the CRUT itself is tax exempt (unfortunately not the annual payments, though), they could at least to defer tax on the sale of his stock. Pretty nifty, eh?
When John was setting up the CRUT, he really hadn’t decided on what charities he wanted to benefit and how. I had warned him about just giving money outright to charities. I have seen congregations torn apart over money fights when they received a big gift. So we set up the CRUT, I included a provision so that he could designate the charitable beneficiaries in his will.
There a little trick to doing this. If you are making a gift to a public charity, for cash gifts, you can deduct up to 50% of your adjusted gross income (your “AGI”). If you’re giving real property, stocks, or bonds, then your deduction is limited to 30% of your AGI. However, if you are contributing to what is called a private foundation, then your deduction for cash gifts is limited to 30% of your AGI, and the deduction for non-cash gifts are limited to 20% of your AGI. There is a 5-year carry-forward for the unused charitable contribution deductions, so they’re not lost, but who wants to wait for a deduction.
If you reserve the right to name a charity in the future and say no more, then your deductions will be subject to the private foundation 30/20% limits. The trick is that the CRUT needs to provide that you can only designate qualified public charities as the beneficiaries of the CRUT. Then you contribution will be eligible for the 50/30% limits.
One last thing – John did not want to give up control. He didn’t want to be locked into a bank or a charitable foundation. He wanted to be his own trustee. So we named him and his wife as the initial co-trustees.
As you can see, CRUTs can be kind of complicated, but under the right circumstances, they are a tremendous way for charitably minded people to make a gift, get a deduction, defer taxes on capital gains, and earn tax deferred income like in an IRA.
To learn more or to analyze whether this is a good option for you, feel free to call and make an appointment. I look forward to hearing from you.