Law News and Tips
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.
PLANNING FOR YOUNG CLIENTS
A friend recently called me. He has two daughters in their 20’s. They recently got jobs, and they were in the process of applying for benefits. They were asked about whether they had a will, whether they had a power of attorney, and who should be called to handle medical emergencies. That got them thinking, and they turned to their dad for advice. That was nice.
It may seem strange that a 20-something single person needs to think about a will. At that age, dying is one the last things people think about, but it makes sense. With a will, you get to say where your property goes when you die. You can cover that with pay-on-death and transfer-on-death beneficiary designations, but those can be of limited value, and people miss things. So a basic will makes sense.
In addition to saying where things should go, you get to pick who is going to go through your stuff and administer your estate. Even a 20-year-old (or maybe particularly a 20-year-old) doesn’t want just anyone going through their stuff, even when they’re dead.
So even if you think you’ve done all of your planning, it is possible to have missed something, and will is a good safety net. If you don’t have kids, the will can be very simple, but if you have kids, you want to say who is going to be their guardians, and you probably want to avoid having the court administer their money sort of like in a Dicken’s novel.
In addition to a will, a young person certainly would want to have a durable power of attorney. Maybe it’s just my job, but I constantly run into situations fairly regularly where someone is in an accident or gets ill and can’t handle their business affairs. A durable power of attorney (and the word durable needs to be in it) allows someone to handle these things when you can’t.
And finally, a young person needs to have a medical directive of some sort. These do several things. First, they are a medical power of attorney that authorizes someone you name to make medical decisions whey you can’t. Second, they need to include HIPAA authority so that a doctor can talk to your family about your condition. I recently reviewed a medical directive that did not have HIPAA authority. Fortunately, we caught it before they needed to use it because, with that authority, doctors and hospitals won’t talk to anyone about anything.
The last thing that a medical directive should include is a living will. If someone is in a car accident, close to death, with no hope of improvement no matter what is done, do they want to be kept “alive” on machines or just allowed to die a natural death? It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but it is so important when the time comes.
So when my friend called and asked what his daughters should do, I told them they needed to do some planning. It can make a lot of difference if the unthinkable happens.
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.
SMALL PACKAGE; BIG PROBLEMS
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
I recently got a call from another attorney saying she had a “difficult” probate case and wondered if we would mind taking it over from her. Since the beneficiary was the Catholic Cathedral Basilica, I agreed without really getting all the details. My paralegal warns me (maybe it’s abuse) not to do things like that. This may read a little like Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine.
It turns out it was actually two estates. The first to die was the tenant (the “Tenant”) of a house owned by the second to die (the “Landlord”). Neither the Tenant nor the Landlord had any close family. The Tenant’s will provides that everything goes to the Landlord.The house was in the City, so the Tenant’s estate will have to be probated in the Probate Court there. The City Probate Court is really swamped, so this can present a problem. From what we’ve been able to determine so far, the Tenant’s estate has less than $40,000 worth of assets in it, so we should be able to do what is called a small estate administration, an easier process. The problem is that the house is a mess, so we’ll have to hire someone to clean it out. Are you confused yet?
The Landlord lived in the County. Since he owned the house, this will probably be a full estate. In order to probate an estate, we need a personal representative. In this case, the Landlord had a will that named a personal representative (the “PR”), but the PR is elderly with health issues. However, after talking about what’s involved, he did agree to serve. That was a relief since it can get really complicated when there isn’t a named PR willing to serve.
In addition to the house, the Landlord’s estate appears to include some life insurance proceeds. It turns out that the Tenant had a life insurance policy that was payable to the Landlord. Since the Landlord survived the Tenant, the uncollected life insurance proceeds are payable to the Landlord’s probate estate. Are you confused now?
The problem is we don’t know how much the life insurance policy was worth. We won’t know until we have a PR appointed. Life insurance companies (in fact any financial institution) won’t talk to anyone in an estate situation until a PR is appointed. I understand why; it’s just kind of a bother.
In the end, we were able to simplify all of this, and there will be a nice sum of money (but not a fortune) going to maintain one of the gems of our region. The Cathedral Basilica is the largest single collection of mosaics outside of Ravenna, Italy – the second largest in the world! And they’re beautiful! So I feel justified in taking on a couple of involved, albeit small, probate estates. But I’m sure I’ll hear different from my paralegal. Oh well.
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|
TAXES AND DEATH
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
Tax Day is just around the corner.For those getting refunds, the date is probably irrelevant. You’ve probably already filed your tax return, deposited your refund check, and bought that big screen TV.
Tax Day is much more relevant for those who still owe some taxes. They may still be gathering information for their preparer.They most certainly are trying to figure out where they are going to get the money to pay the remaining taxes due.And they resent the fact that it costs probably over 50% of their earned income to be an American.
Yes, between state and federal income taxes, personal property tax, real estate tax, and sales tax, a number of people pay over 50% of their income in taxes.Sure there may be some who can avoid paying some of their taxes by making certain investments and things, but that is a very small number of people. The vast majority of American citizens don’t have those kinds of options. They have to work for a living, and so they pay taxes, and lots of them.
One of the only remaining (legal) tax savings (and it’s really only a tax deferral) options open to taxpayers is saving for retirement. It used to be that employers provided pensions to workers, and it was up to the company to worry about how that was going to get funded. Government employees (including teachers) still get this. But those days are gone.
For most of us, we have to take money out of our paychecks and put it in 401(k)s or IRAs. Although that can be painful now, it is critically important for the future. Although some people have gotten lazy and think that the government will take care of us all through Social Security and Medicare, Social Security checks don’t really go that far. And since the US has to borrow literally billions of dollars each year just to keep this flimsy boat afloat, who knows how much longer we can keep plugging the fiscal holes with foreign money.It’s a scary thought, so putting money away for retirement is absolutely critical.
And for those who have saved money, what happens to it if you die unexpectantly. I often have clients tell me they just going to live until they run out of money. The problem is no one really knows when that day will come.
So you do need to plan for that. If you’re married, your retirement money will probably go to your spouse. On the death of the second of you to die, you probably have named your children as the beneficiaries. The problem is that inherited IRAs can be taken away in lawsuits, and they can even get caught up in divorce settlements.If you don’t do any planning, then within five (5) years of your death, the government can take a huge chunk of your hard-earned money in taxes.
Although we surprisingly still get a lot of pushback from financial advisors on this, the best plan for retirement assets after a spouse is a trust. In 1999, the IRS gave us some “magic” language that allows us to do that. IRAs that go through a trust are protected from bankruptcies and court judgments, and they should never enter into any divorce settlement discussions.In my opinion, it’s the best way to go. But like I said, we still get pushback for some reason.
Call me to discuss further.It would be sad if all that money you worked so hard to save just went up in flames … I mean taxes …wait, that’s kind of the same things, isn’t it.
A CLIENT LETTER
Fred L. Vilbig © 2018
Let me commend you on what you are doing. Having helped my wife care for her parents as their health and mental capacity declined, I know how physically, intellectually, and emotionally draining this can all be. Growing up, we never really think about the kinds of things you have to deal with now. Some people walk away. Some people delegate the duties. Some people just want to end it all. But you are caring for your mother at what is probably the most difficult time in her life, and also of your life up to now. As I said at the beginning, I commend you.
That said, I wanted to answer some of your questions. The first was whether having your mom declared incompetent created any problems for you personally. To answer that, I need to define what I mean by declaring your mom incompetent.
If she had not done any planning, that would mean getting a court involved. It’s not the end of the world, but it is sort of a pain. You’d need to get a doctor to answer a formal set of questions (“interrogatories”) to say that your mom can’t perform certain basic functions of daily living. For instance, can she remember to take her medicine at the proper time? Does she know to wear a coat when it’s cold outside?
Once you have the interrogatories, you have a hearing. Assuming all goes as planned, the judge would then put you in charge of her finances (a conservatorship) and her person (a guardianship). You would next need to get a court order authorizing you to spend money, and then you have to file an annual financial report with the court.
Fortunately, your mom did all the necessary planning. She has a general durable power of attorney, a medical directive (which includes a medical power of attorney and a living will), and a trust. Although people can put others in charge of things even while they’re competent, your mom (as most people) wanted to retain control as long as she could. So in her case, in order for you to take over, you just need a doctor to certify that she is not able to perform some of the necessary basic functions of daily living.
Just as a caution to you, although getting that kind of certification from a doctor used to be fairly easy, I have noticed in recent years that doctors have become more cautious. They are often reluctant to make that certification. However, given the right circumstances, they will.
Once you do get the certification, you can pay your mom’s bills and make decisions regarding her care. There is no need for any court proceeding. I know you were worried about having to testify, so I’m assuming that is a relief.
I now want to return to your main question about liability. The doctor’s certification does not impose any additional personal liability on you. You are basically already doing what needs to be done. With the certification, you will just have the proper authority to do it. And you can do everything with your mother’s assets, not yours. You will have no additional personal financial liability for your mom.
Once again, I want to commend you on what you are doing. Even though it can be very challenging, it is the right thing to do. Our parents took care of us when we were young, and now it’s our turn. Life is funny that way.
Let me know if you have any more questions.
Fred L Vilbig
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.