What are the Duties of an Executor?

Many clients struggle with who can serve as an executor for their estate plan.  They may not have an easy option amongst their family, and are hesitant to ask others to serve as executor.  Many times clients want to know what are the duties of an executor so they can convey that to a potential candidate for the role.  It isn’t easy to explain everything an executor needs to do as they have to react to the circumstances as the time, but there are some general steps they will address.  A recent US News article entitled “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” takes a further look into what is expected of an executor.

First, keep in mind that an executor is the person who helps wrap up the finances, assets and affairs for a deceased person. An executor is a person named in a will, and that is the scenario I’ll address.  If you are using trusts, many of the steps will overlap.

As executor of an estate, you will need to get copies of the death certificate and the will, and take both to an attorney well versed in probate law.  That attorney can help you probate the will through court.

Once appointed, you will follow the instructions in the will to administer the estate.  As executor, you are acting in a fiduciary capacity, and your efforts are directed toward the interests of the beneficiaries of the decedent’s the estate.

You will identify the assets of the estate, determine their value, pay off any valid debts, close accounts like utilities and cable or phone plans and distribute money and possessions to beneficiaries.  Depending on the terms of the will and the situation, you’ll have to file tax returns, make tax elections, and potentially sell property and the like.  You may also establish trusts for beneficiaries, or make arrangements to deliver assets such as personal property, real property, vehicles and more.

The duties of an executor also include reporting what assets they found in the estate through the filing of an inventory, to notify creditors or other essential parties.  Attorneys help with this process to ensure compliance with state laws.

The time required to be an executor can be extensive.  Any court process is not a fast one, and for that reason many clients choose to avoid it through the use of trusts in their plans.  Trusts do not require a court process and can be far more immediate for the family.  As I said before, the duties of an executor overlap with the trustee, so the issues for consideration when picking a trustee are similar.   You can see this article for more detail on the differences.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-difference-between-an-executor-a-trustee-and-other-fiduciaries/ 

Finally, executors may be compensated for their work. Some states have commission schedules listed in their statutes that the executor can collect, while other states require that you keep track of your time and the judge will authorize “reasonable” compensation for your actual efforts.

Ask for help if tasks seem overwhelming or you do not understand certain instructions on accounts or the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can assist.

Reference: US News (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”

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Retaining Assets While Being Medicaid Eligible

Medicaid is a program with strict income and wealth limits to qualify, explains Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “You Can Keep Some Assets While Qualifying for Medicaid. Here’s How.” This is a different program from Medicare, the national health insurance program for people 65 and over that largely doesn’t cover long-term care. In this system, clients often have a goal of retaining assets while being Medicaid eligible.

If you can afford your own care, you’ll have more options because all facilities (depending on the level of medical care) don’t take Medicaid. Even so, couples with ample savings may deplete all their wealth for the other spouse to pay for a long stay in a nursing home. However, you can save some assets for a spouse and qualify for Medicaid using strategies from an Elder Law or Medicaid Planning Attorney.

You can allocate as much as $3,259.50 of your monthly income to a spouse, whose income isn’t considered, and still satisfy the Medicaid limit. Your countable assets must be $2,000 or less, with a spouse allowed to keep half of what you both own up to $130,380. Countable assets include things like cash, bank accounts, real estate other than a primary residence, and investments.  However, you can keep a personal residence, personal belongings (like clothes and home appliances), one vehicle (2 for married couple), engagement and wedding rings and a prepaid burial plot.  There are more detailed rules for countable and exempt assets, but suffice it to say most things count.

If you have too much income over the $2,382 income per month for the application, you can use a Miller Trust aka Qualified Income Trust for yourself, which is an irrevocable trust that’s used exclusively to satisfy Medicaid’s income threshold. If your income from Social Security, pensions and other sources is higher than Medicaid’s limit but not enough to pay for nursing home care, the excess income can go into a Miller Trust. This allows you to qualify for Medicaid, while keeping some extra money in the trust for your own care. The funds can be used for items that Medicare doesn’t cover.

However, your spouse may not have enough to live on. You could boost a spouse’s income with a Medicaid-compliant annuity. These turn your savings into a stream of future retirement income for you and your spouse and don’t count as an asset. You can purchase an annuity at any time, but to be Medicaid compliant, the annuity payments must begin right away with the state named as the beneficiary after you and your spouse pass away.

These strategies are designed for retaining assets while being Medicaid eligible for married couples; leaving an asset to other heirs is more difficult. Once you and your spouse pass away, the state government must recover Medicaid costs from your estate, when possible. This may be through a a claim on your probate estate (usually means the house) before assets go to heirs, reimbursement from a Miller Trust or other items.  That is a topic unto itself, albeit an important one, so see here for more information on Medicaid recovery.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protect-assets-from-medicaid-recovery/

Note that any assets given away within five years of a Medicaid application date still count toward eligibility. Property transferred to heirs earlier than that is okay. One strategy is to create an irrevocable trust on behalf of your children and transfer property that way. You will lose control of the trust’s assets, so your heirs should be willing to help you out financially, if you need it.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 24, 2021) “You Can Keep Some Assets While Qualifying for Medicaid. Here’s How”

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Is Transferring the House to Children a Good Idea?

Clients frequently ask this question, especially as mom or dad is aging and perhaps living in assisted living or some other senior care arrangement.  Many try to do so using online forms, and find later that it was a mistake.  Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, but gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill or could effect eligibility for long term care benefits. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.  A capable elder law attorney can advise you on better ways to address this, as well as potential corrections if necessary.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.  Texas has both transfer on death deeds and “Lady Bird Deeds,” and an attorney can advise you on the differences and the best way to utilize them with your estate plan.  An excellent solution is to use a living trust which allows assets it owns or receives at death to avoid probate.  Having the trust own the property, or possibly using a deed to convey the property to the the trust at death, are excellent solutions.

If you are interested in learning more, please see this article for various ways to own and hold real estate.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-own-your-real-estate/  

In sum, there are many unexpected consequences to transferring your home to your children, so it is important to discuss the best way to convey the home to your loved ones with an attorney.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

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