That Last Step: Trust Funding

A trust only controls the assets it owns, so don’t forget the critical last step in a trust estate plan: properly funding the trust.

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

If you read our blogs routinely, you’ll know we are fans of trust planning.  Done properly with appropriate trust funding, a trust helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and streamlines the estate process.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets may go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court to appoint them as executor first. That takes time and costs money. It is much better if you do it yourself while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, it may not do very much good.  Instead, an agent under a power of attorney, or if none, a court-appointed guardian may have to be appointed.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. I cannot stress this enough, but you should speak with an attorney regarding how to fund your specific trust.  Not all plans and assets are the same, and different plans call for different trust funding.   That said, taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust either immediately during lifetime or upon death via a beneficiary designation. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as business interests.  Some assets, such as life insurance and retirement funds may designate the trust in some manner by beneficiary designation, but in light of the Secure Act changes you’ll definitely want to discuss that with your attorney.   See here for more:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-the-secure-act-impacts-your-estate-plan/

Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes. You should also consider trust funding when you review your estate plan to ensure it is updated with new assets.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

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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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Amending a Trust: What are your Options?

If your trust no longer meets your needs, there are many ways to amend the trust to serve your goals for you and your loved ones.

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation.

The son has numerous valid concerns about paying his parents’ bills, managing their assets and avoiding personal liability if they are sued.  The author addresses these concerns for the son, but I’d like to focus on one point: updating and amending the trust.

All estate plans change over time as an individual’s needs and wishes change.  Sometimes the trust will anticipate these changes, such as naming a successor trustee to take over when the trust creators can no longer make financial decisions.  In the son’s case, that might be enough.  However, if the trust doesn’t address the issue or if the trust makers’ needs and wishes change substantially, it is sometimes necessary to amend a trust.  Sometimes it is good to amend a trust for tax reasons, such as Mary describes here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/higher-estate-tax-exemption-means-you-could-save-income-taxes-by-updating-your-estate-plan/

If his parents have a revocable or living trust and have the capacity to handle their financial affairs, they can choose to amend the trust themselves.  This is by far the best and cheapest option as the parents can review the trust each year, put their son in charge of their affairs if they wish and make other appropriate changes.  They can do this very easily by either making an amendment or restating the trust.  Restating is amending the trust by rewriting the terms of the trust with the changes without actually creating a new trust.

If his parents do not have the capacity to make financial decisions, that doesn’t mean the son can’t amend the trust.  Often powers of attorney permit an agent to amend a trust if the principal (person who makes the power of attorney) is incapacitated.  Now, the powers of attorney will usually have limitations built in.  For example, they may require the agent to follow the principal’s “testamentary intent.”  This means that the beneficiaries of the estate plan should be generally the same.  So, if the son wasn’t a beneficiary of the trust, he can’t make himself one now. He also still needs to act in the best interest of the principal.  But, amending the trust to protect the assets and better care for his parents is just fine.

Let’s say the trust is an irrevocable trust, or perhaps the power of attorney doesn’t permit amending the trust, what then?   There are still options.

Some trusts include “trust protectors.”  This is a person named in the trust who can amend the trust in limited ways to make sure it still works.  A trust protector is usually a trusted individual, occasionally an attorney, who can make amendments to the trust.  Depending on the reason for the change, it is also possible to ask a Court to modify the trust.   It’s even possible sometimes to “decant” a trust.  Decanting is not really amending a trust, it is creating a whole new trust with new terms, and then transferring the assets from the old trust to the new one.  These techniques are more complex and expensive, but very helpful, especially with very out-of-date trusts that haven’t been reviewed or amended in some time.

The key point is that is important to review and keep your trust up to date.  But, even if you have a trust that is old or doesn’t work well, there are many ways to amend a trust to ensure proper administration of the assets for you and your beneficiaries.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”

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