Removing your House from your Trust

There are ways to remove your house from your trust, but work with an estate planning attorney to do so while preserving the trust benefits!

Occasionally clients ask for assistance in removing their house from their trust.  They do so to facilitate refinancing the house, the client wants to add a relative to the title, to ensure the home is considered a residence for Medicaid purposes or some other similar issue.  There are a number of issues to consider before doing so as the recent nj.com article entitled “I want to revoke a trust on my house. What do I do?”  points out.  Whether it is a good idea to remove your home from your trust and actually doing so will require the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

The answer to a question about how to get a house out of your trust is going to be in the trust terms themselves. However, if the terms of the trust are silent, the answer may be found in the trust laws in the state statutes.  If answering the question in general terms, the primary concern is whether the trust is revocable or irrevocable.

The first step is to determine whether the trust is revocable.   Most clients use revocable trusts, so assuming it is a revocable trust, the trustor (person who set up the trust) has the right to remove the house from the trust.  The trustee (probably the same person) can execute a deed conveying the property from the trust to the trustor.  That takes the property out of the trust.

In the majority of cases, this will solve the problem.  Also, if the property was removed to refinance, you can safely convey it back to the trust once the refinance is done.  Similarly, if a client wants to add someone to title to change where the property goes at death, it is often better to just change the trust terms to leave the residence to the beneficiary.  This is often better for taxes as well.

If the trust is irrevocable, it means that the house can’t be removed from the trust unless the terms of the trust permit it.  There are exceptions, such as asking a Court’s permission to revoke the trust or remove the property, or in some cases, terminating the trust with agreement of the trustee and beneficiaries, but these are more difficult options and not guaranteed.

Next, let’s look at the reason why the home was initially put in a trust.  It is important to keep these ideas in mind as removing the property from the trust may negate important benefits.   See here for the benefits https://www.galliganmanning.com/category/trusts/page/6/      There may be alternatives which accomplish the same goals as well.

If the purpose was to lower estate taxes, it may make sense to remove the house from the trust. This is especially the case if the property is in a state that doesn’t have state estate taxes.  Very few states still do.  An estate rarely meets the threshold for federal estate taxes, so clients actually save taxes by removing the property from trust.

If the property is owned by an irrevocable trust for asset protection in long-term care planning, it might make sense to keep the property in the trust.  However, if you are using a revocable trust and want to consider asset protection in long-term care planning, it is often better to keep the property in your name. This is because Medicaid may exempt your residence if you own it personally.  In our office, we prepare “Lady Bird deeds” for Texas residences which allow a client to own the residence personally, and transfer it to the trust automatically when they pass away.  This works with both asset protection planning and probate planning.

If the trust owned the property for probate avoidance, the property often will be put back into the trust or conveyed at death to the trust such as with the Lady Bird deed.

In sum, there are some reasons to remove property from a trust, but doing so should always involve an experienced estate planning to preserve the benefits of the trust and to ensure your goals are met.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 4, 2020) “I want to revoke a trust on my house. What do I do?”

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Do I have to Pay the Estate’s Debt?

People often have debts when they pass away such as credit cards and medical bills, but family shouldn’t pay those debts themselves outside of the estate.

When a family is grieving after the death of a loved one, the last thing any of them wants to deal with is unpaid debts and debt collectors.  But, sooner or later creditors must be dealt with, and one of the first questions clients ask is whether they have to pay the estate’s debt.

nj.com’s recent article asks “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?” The answer: generally, any unpaid debts are paid from the deceased person’s estate, which means from the estate’s assets only.  In fact, fair collection laws require debt collectors to let you know that you aren’t responsible for that debt.

In many states, family members, including the surviving spouse, typically aren’t required to pay the debts from their own assets, unless they co-signed on the account or loan.  In other words, if they would have been liable for the debt themselves, they are still responsible.  If the debt belongs to the decedent, such as a creditor card they used, then only the estate is responsible to pay the debt.  There are a few potential exceptions, such as the IRS collecting estate income from anyone who benefits from the estate, but not many.

All the stuff that a person owns at the time of death, including everything from money in the bank to their possessions to debts they owe, is called an estate. When the deceased person has debt, the executor of the estate will go through the probate process.  There is a lot more to this process, see here for a fuller description.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/probate-dissolving-the-mystery/

During the probate process, all the deceased’s debts are paid off from the estate’s assets. Some assets—like retirement accounts, IRAs and life insurance proceeds—may pass outside of probate and aren’t included in the probate process. As a result, these assets may not be available to pay creditors. Other estate assets can be sold to pay off outstanding debts.

Now, this portion is very state specific sometimes with very specific requirements, so you should do it at the advice of an attorney.  A relative or the estate executor will typically notify any creditors, like credit card companies, when that person passes away. The creditor will then contact the executor about any balances due. Note: the creditor can’t add any additional fees, while the estate is being settled.  At this point, assuming there is enough money, the executor will pay the estate’s debt from estate assets.

If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay the estate’s debts, then the executor has a very important task.  Every state has an order of priority to satisfy debts such as administrative debts (attorney’s fees, accountant’s fees, court costs), priority debts and then general creditors.  Different states also have different rules about whether you have to satisfy one creditor to the exclusion of the other.  The executor, with the assistance of an attorney, should pay the estate’s debt according to that order of priority.  The executor and the heirs aren’t responsible for these debts and shouldn’t pay them. Unlike some debts, like a mortgage or a car loan, most debts aren’t secured. Therefore, the credit card company may need to write off that debt as a loss.  As an aside, there might be an opportunity to settle or negotiate debts on this basis, though there are tax implications to the estate for writing off the debt.

If your loved one passes away with debt, don’t pay it.  Talk with an attorney about opening an estate for that deceased loved one and discuss how or whether to pay the estate’s debts.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 15, 2020) “Is mom liable for my dead father’s credit card debt?”

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Inherited Property? What You Need to Know

There are many options for what to do with inherited property, but they depend on debts, costs of property, beneficiaries and your needs.

Many clients wonder what to do with inherited property, particularly real property like a house.  There are choices, and they depend on several factors. Are there other siblings who also have inherited portions of the ownership of the house? Is there another owner who needs to be bought out? Can the heir afford to take on the responsibilities and expenses of a home? Is someone else already living there?  These are all questions presented in the article “What to do when inheriting a house” from The Mercury.

There’s a tax issue to consider, for starters. Property that was titled in the name of the decedent at the time of death or is part of their estate taxable estate and then inherited, receives what is called a “step-up” in basis. This means that there is no federal tax due on the appreciation in value from the time the person purchased the home to the time that the person died.  They may also be state taxes as well.

Let’s say the person bought the home for $100,000 and at the time of her death the property is worth $300,000. The federal government will not tax the $200,000 difference between the original value and the DOD (Day of Death) value of the home. If the heir obtains an appraisal shortly after the death of the home owner and then moves in or if you already live there and the house is transferred into your name, the “clock” starts running again for another tax break, which is an additional $250,000 exclusion from capital gains on resale after you have lived there for two years.  If the property is sold shortly after the person’s death to a third party in an arms-length deal, the sales price would be the DOD value of the inherited property.

Now, this all assumes that any other beneficiaries have been satisfied as to the ownership of the house. A good elder law estate attorney will be able to help with the details, including the transfer of title.

Another issue: is there a mortgage on the house? If so, the new owner may need to satisfy the lender and refinance. If the heir has enough money to meet monthly payments, a strong credit rating to be able to get a mortgage and enough income to maintain the home, then it should be a relatively simple transaction.

Have the home inspected before moving in. Is the inherited property in good shape? If repairs need to be done, are they budget-friendly, or will they make the inheritance too expensive to be financially viable?  Who will pay for it?  The estate, the heirs, or a new owner?

Property maintenance is another consideration. If the estate can carry costs associated with the property until the property is sold and if the estate can pay for repairs, upgrades and maintenance so the house can be sold for a good price, then that is a reasonable approach to take. If there are other beneficiaries, they should all part of a discussion about how much money is worth investing in the house and what the return on investment will be.

One key concern that I’ve told countless clients over the years is decide early what to do with the inherited property, and stick with the plan.  Maintaining the property is time consuming, potentially costly, carries a risk in the form of liability and may prevent the estate from making liquid distributions if it isn’t sold.  Some of the worst estate administrations I’ve dealt with involved not deciding what to do with inherited property, and that lead to unnecessary cost and years of administration. So, the executor or trustee should decide earlier what to do with the property.

Finally, if the language of the will says “equally to my three children” or language similar to that and one sibling wants to buy out the other two, then an agreement on the value of the house and a plan for working out timing of the sale will need to be created. An estate planning or elder law attorney will be able to help create a family settlement agreement that will include an informal accounting, whereby all of the heirs receive their fair share of the inheritance and all sign off that they have agreed to the transaction.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 15, 2020) “What to do when inheriting a house”

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