What is an Estate Asset?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. For example, you have a gross estate for federal estate taxes which defines all of the assets subject to the tax. However, there’s also the probate estate, which means property controlled by a will, and a non-probate estate, which means property passing outside of probate and the will.  So, if you are asking if an asset is part of an estate, it depends on which “estate” you mean.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.  An executor or administrator of your estate never controls or has access to it.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for beneficiaries of your probate estate?  So, let’s assume you left a will and your son is the named executor.  The will names all three of your children as equal beneficiaries.  Because the life insurance bypassed the probate process and went to a named beneficiary, none of the life insurance is available to the other two children.  If you wanted the money to go in trust for a beneficiary under the will, fund charitable giving or specific bequests, then the life insurance proceeds aren’t available for those purposes.

As an aside, common probate assets may include real property, tangible property like household contents, vehicles and so on, bank accounts depending on titling, and miscellaneous refunds due to the decedent.  Common non-probate assets may include life insurance, retirement funds and accounts with beneficiary designations generally.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a transfer on death deed or similar technique is available.

It is also true that certain states expect executors to have information about non-probate assets.  For example, New York has estate tax and Pennsylvania has inheritance tax.  Both states require an executor to file the appropriate return that will include information about non-probate assets because they are subject to tax (similar to the federal estate tax) even though the executor doesn’t take control of them.  Texas, you’ll be happy to know, does not have an estate or inheritance tax.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate, and how taxes and creditors will apply to these various assets.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”

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Should I Use a Corporate Trustee?

Recently, a client decided to include a corporate trustee as part of their estate plan.  When discussing the matter, they were surprised at how affordable they can be, and that they were glad they choose that route.  Thinking of that conversation and how important it is to name a proper trustee, I wanted to highlight some benefits of corporate trustees.

The Quad Cities Times’ recent article entitled “Benefits of a corporate trustee” warns that care should be taken when selecting someone to serve in this role. Now, many clients have loved ones in their lives who are capable of serving as a trustee or other fiduciary, but for some, family members may not have the experience, ability and time required to perform the duties of a trustee. Those with personal relationships with beneficiaries may cause conflicts within the family. You can name almost any adult, including family members or friends, but think about a corporate or professional trustee as the possible answer.  I also covered how to choose a trustee here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-pick-a-trustee/

Here are some reasons to use a corporate trustee:

Experience and Dedication. Corporate trustees can devote their full attention to the trust assets and possess experience, resources, access to tax, legal, and investment knowledge that may be hard for the average person to duplicate. It’s their job and they hire professionals with backgrounds in these areas.  Many people who choose a corporate trustee do so for this reason.

Relative Cost.  This may seem a strange reason to consider a corporate trustee.  Most people don’t consider them at all because professionals will charge fees to serve.  However, trustee fees are often regulated by law or by the trust document.  Both individuals such as family members, and corporate trustees might only be able to charge the same rate.  Given the fact the trust might pay your middle child and an office of professionals the same rate, that isn’t a bad deal.  Further, corporate trustees sometimes take assets under management.  This means they would invest your assets for you, and therefore make money on the investments like a financial advisor does.  If they do, they often include those fees at a reduced rate when serving as a trustee.  This means you actually save money in the end.  It is also possible that they don’t take money under management so that your investment advisor can continue to invest the funds if that’s your preference.

Successor Trustee. If you choose to name personal trustees, you may provide in your trust documents for a corporate trustee as a successor, in case none of the personal trustees is available, capable, or willing to serve. Corporate trustees are institutions that don’t become incapacitated or die. You should consider the type of assets you own and then choose the most qualified trustee to manage them.

Middleman.  Clients sometimes struggle to admit to their estate planning attorney that their families don’t get along.  They don’t want to talk about how a child of theirs struggles with addiction, is dependent on them for support or otherwise would be difficult for a family member trustee to deal with.  In that situation, corporate trustees have the benefit of professional detachment.  The beneficiary can be as angry with them as they want, and the anger won’t be directed to one of your loved ones.  This can make professional trustees an attractive middleman or wall between a difficult beneficiary and the rest of the family.

In sum, many estate owners can benefit from the advantages of a corporate trustee.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney when working on a trust about naming the appropriate corporate trustee, and the advisability of including terms for your registered investment advisor to manage assets for your trust.

Reference: Quad Cities Times (Nov. 28, 2021) “Benefits of a corporate trustee”

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Do TOD Accounts Mean I Don’t Need an Estate Plan?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones because it will avoid probate.  They often do this at the suggestion of bankers or financial professionals, and they believe it avoids the need for having a trust or even a will.  However, the article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts, and is akin to having a beneficiary named on the account.  It’s worth pointing out that I’m using TOD as a general term here, the specific term might be different for different types of assets.  For example, a POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.  You can find more information about pitfalls of beneficiary designations here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/common-mistakes-made-on-beneficiary-designations/ 

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

Very frequently, naming a TOD/POD beneficiary in an estate that otherwise expects to go through probate (i.e. a will-based estate plan) leads to having non-liquid assets such as a house which cost money to administer, and no money with which to do so.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.  This is a very, very common problem when a loved one has a disability.

Very simply too, beneficiaries under TOD/POD accounts can predecease an owner with no meaningful way to handle contingencies.  If that happens, the asset will be subject to probate which will negate their advantage, and may not go to the proper beneficiaries.  Utilizing trusts can solve that problem.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides more benefit to the trustor (creator of the trust) and in fact can work in conjunction with TODs as part of a complete, integrated plan.  Trusts address control of assets upon incapacity because trustees will be in place to manage assets for the trustor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.  People often don’t think of trusts as part of incapacity planning, but this is often a benefit to a trust-based plan.

Similarly, trusts (whether an asset named the trust as beneficiary of a TOD/POD or if it owns the assets themselves) can address contingencies.  So, if a beneficiary has a disability, potential divorce, creditors, predeceases the owner, or virtually any other reason for them not to directly receive money, the trust can provide for what happens under all of those contingencies.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries, and if you chose to avoid probate, to do so in a way that will work for all of your assets and to avoid problems created by solely using TOD/POD accounts.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?”

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