How to Pick a Trustee

Clients frequently choose to use trusts in their estate plans, and once they and their estate planning attorney have made that decision, they’ll need to decide who to name as trustee or trustees. Picking a trustee is not always an easy process, explains Kiplinger in the article “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate.”

Serving as a trustee creates many duties under state law, including acting as a fiduciary to the trust. That means the trustee must be impartial about their own interests, put the beneficiary’s interests and well-being first and be prudent with how they invest funds. Law prohibits a trustee from self-dealing, although depending on the scenario, the trustee might also be the beneficiary.

Here are a long series of questions that will help to assess a person’s ability to serve as a trustee:

  • Will the person be able to separate their personal feelings and interests from those of the beneficiaries?
  • Will all parties be treated fairly, especially if your children are not also your spouse’s children?
  • Can your trustee manage finances and investments?
  • Is there any risk that your trustee will be tempted to take a risk to obtain money at the expense of beneficiaries, including their own money problems or addiction?
  • Are there concerns about the health, age or capacity of the person?
  • Will a child who is a trustee be fair to the other siblings, even if they are step siblings?
  • Will a child be able to stand up to the other siblings?
  • Will the person who is managing work and family have the time to take on the responsibilities of the trustee when they will likely be needed to do so?
  • Does the person understand the family dynamics?
  • Has the person served as a trustee before?

Another common problem is people are unsure of who to ask in their family or where to look for back-up trustees, especially where they might not feel comfortable with those closest to them.  With that in mind, here are some potential people to consider, although their suitability will vary greatly in different circumstances:

  • Spouse
  • Parents
  • Children, step children, and grandchildren
  • Siblings and step siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins
  • Spouses of children, step children, siblings or other close family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Members of social groups, fraternal organizations, religious communities or other similar groups
  • Financial Professionals (not necessarily financial planners who likely aren’t permitted to, but CPAs or some attorneys for example)
  • Professional Trustees (e.g. a bank or other similar trustee)

I should note as well that I’m focusing on trustees in this article, but many of these same considerations apply to other fiduciary roles.  See here for more information on the other roles to consider.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-difference-between-an-executor-a-trustee-and-other-fiduciaries/

There is no one size fits all approach to picking a trustee, but hopefully this will provide guidance on who is right for you.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 8, 2020) “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate”

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Locking in a Deceased Spouse’s Unused Federal Estate Tax Exemption

Preserving a deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption may protect the survivor’s estate from huge taxes if the exemption lowers.

Coping with the death of a spouse is one of life’s biggest challenges.  In addition to the emotional toll, there are many small details that need to be addressed with accounts, finances, taxes and other matters.  One thing that should be considered is locking in the deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption, says a recent article from Forbes titled “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption.”

The deceased spouse unused exemption (DSUE) is the amount of federal estate tax exemption the spouse’s estate did not use when they passed away. When a person dies, a federal estate tax, known also as the “death” tax, is imposed on any assets over a certain amount. The estate tax exemption amount covers the assets that fall below that amount.  If you properly elect to us it, the DSUE amount can be used by the surviving spouse in their own estate along with their own personal tax exemption.  If you want a longer primer on the estate tax for reading this article, see here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

The threshold has changed over the years. It is at a historically high level of $11,580,000 in 2020 and is indexed to inflation, so it goes up slightly each year.  However, the current law will sunset in 2026, when it will drop to $5 million (adjusted for inflation), and as the federal government needs to pay for COVID-related costs, it is likely to drop sooner and possibly lower.

The DSUE is locked in when you file your deceased spouses’ estate tax return timely.  It is due nine (9) months after the date of death, but may be extended in some cases for up to two (2) years after death. If a spouse died in 2020 with the current exemption of $11,580,000 in place and used up $6,580,000 of the exemption amount, the surviving spouse will be able to add $5,000,000 to their exemption amount by filing the estate tax return appropriately.

The surviving spouse would then have their own $11,580,000 exemption (or whatever is appropriate in the year they pass), plus the $5,000,000 from the deceased spouse’s exemptions. As the current tax rate is 40% for amounts over the exemption, this is an exceptional tax benefit for high networth families, especially if the tax exemption plummets in future years.

I’ve said this a few times but it bears repeating: even if a spouse leaves all of their assets to their spouse and no federal estate taxes are due, an estate tax return still needs to be filed, if the surviving spouse is to lock in the DSUE. If the surviving spouse does not file an estate tax return in a timely fashion, the DSUE will be lost. The estate tax savings to the heirs could be in the millions.

If the estate tax exemption drops to prior levels, such as $3,500,000 which has been proposed in recent years, the family will still be able to claim the DSUE when the second spouse dies. This could be a big help for heirs in reducing or eliminating taxes on the second spouse’s estate. Many people may not have an estate worth $11 million, but by adding up the value of a home, retirement accounts, life insurance and other assets, a $5 million level of assets is not unheard of, and may be over the future exemption amount.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to analyze the federal estate taxes to achieve the best possible outcome for you and your spouse.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 17, 2020) “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption”

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New Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania

The new PA digital asset law highlights the need to plan for your loved ones to have access to your digital assets after you pass.

More and more of our lives are lived online. We bank online, use email for everything, have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, keep photos on the cloud and have usernames and passwords for virtually every part of our online presence.  All of these things could be considered digital asset examples. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these digital assets? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020 (FYI Texas readers, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (TRUFADAA) in 2017). Until now, Pennsylvania didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically when presented with a software terms of service agreement.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access or the successor is unaware of it, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.  I just this week received my first prompt from Facebook to name a legacy successor contact, and if Facebook is just starting that process, you can assume most other apps are far behind.

These laws are necessary because administering an estate with digital assets presents unique challenges.  With digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

Under the digital asset law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.  Most quality estate planning attorneys have included access to such assets in the documents they prepare, and we certainly do.

Here are some tips to help administer your digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.  I did this a few years ago and was surprised to find it covered four pages.  You should also consider recording login information to your devices where you might store information.  Often people don’t keep paper records, so you can look for information on laptops, phones and similar devices.  Our estate planning binders actually provide a section to do exactly this.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf, such as the Facebook example I provided.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.  This is especially true as our lives are likely to become even more digital in the future.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, especially the practical components, Mary Galligan did an excellent article on this topic you can find here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/does-your-estate-planning-include-your-online-account-passwords/

Remember to never put specific private information in your estate plan such as account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated and your other documents may be shared as well. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while enabling access to them for your fiduciaries.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

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