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?”

Continue ReadingWhat is an Estate Asset?

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?”

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

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

Clients often, sometimes at the suggestion of their bankers, add names onto accounts to make money accessible upon the incapacity or death of a parent.  This often leads them to assume they don’t need a Power of Attorney (POA), and they don’t realize that Powers of Attorney are designed to permit access to accounts upon incapacity of a parent. There are some pros and cons of doing this in either way, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.  This is usually what individuals are thinking of when they create these accounts.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.  As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.  You can see the following article for more on this point.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/effect-of-adding-someone-to-your-bank-account/

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account may pass to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

It also avoids the creation of a gift, which may have estate tax or Medicaid ramifications.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.  I worked closing on a case with the opposite scenario, a creditor a parent collected money that otherwise would have gone to the children.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

Continue ReadingDo You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?