What Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Clients often make these estate planning mistakes which jeopardize family harmony and expose families to anxiety, delay and unnecessary cost.

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some estate planning mistakes to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger.  He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared estate plan could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.  This example also points out that even brilliant legal minds make mistakes if they aren’t experts in this area!

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.  Clients often confront this estate planning mistake at this time of year as part of new years resolutions or as part of a financial check-up with their financial advisors, so now is an excellent time to consider it.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions, at least to the individuals in charge of the plan. If you are leaving more uneven amounts to children for example, it may be a kindness to explain why to your love ones.  Otherwise, they will be forced to come up with their own answers, which may lead to fighting. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.  Some of the worst estate disputes I’ve ever dealt with were over sentimental items.

Clients often ask about this topic, so see this article if you are interested in more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-avoid-family-fighting-in-my-estate/  

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have appropriate incapacity planning documents such as financial and medical Powers of Attorney so that you may speak with each other’s financial institutions and medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.  Happily this is a very easy estate planning mistake to correct, though you should consult an attorney on how to properly utilize your trust.

Don’t be naive about people you put in charge of your estate plan.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances or other self-serving motivations. However, we see this all the time. This concern must be confronted honestly, even when it is children, during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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Is It Time for an Estate Plan Checkup?

Because life brings many changes, you should have an estate plan checkup at least every three years.
Because life brings many changes, you should have an estate plan checkup at least every three years.

After you’ve met with an attorney to do your first Will, it is easy to assume that you have checked estate planning off of your to do list forever. The reality is not so simple. Not only do tax laws frequently change, but so does your life. The smallest change could have a big impact on your estate plan. That’s why it’s a good idea to go through an estate plan checkup at least every three years to ensure your estate plan still accurately reflects your values, needs, and hopes for your legacy.

Even if you have already created an estate plan you feel confident about, circumstances surrounding your decisions may change. Marriages end, children grow up, and serious illnesses occur. When laws change, some estate planning techniques can become outdated.

An estate plan checkup should include a look at how your accounts and property are titled to see if any changes are necessary. Joint ownership of your property, for example, may be a good idea or a bad idea, depending on the circumstances. Births or deaths of loved ones may lead you to change your beneficiaries. The person you named as one of your trusted decision-makers (for example, a trustee, executor, agent under a financial power of attorney, or agent under a medical power of attorney) may no longer be the best option due to relationship changes or physical relocation. Such changes can occur without your thinking of the effect they have on your estate plan, so it is worth a periodic estate plan checkup to make sure your your plan still reflects your wishes.

Significant financial change can also be a good reason for an estate plan checkup. If you have taken on a new job, bought a house, or made new investments, you will want your estate plan to reflect these changes. If you have a trust, the only way to ensure that your accounts and property are kept out of probate is to have all of your accounts and property appropriately funded into the trust or naming the trust as beneficiary.

Changes in the laws affecting how assets are left to beneficiaries seem to be happening with more and more frequency. For example, the recent SECURE Act and the elimination of the lifetime stretch for nonspouse beneficiaries shows how important it is for you to talk with your estate planning attorney  about the effect this new law may have on the beneficiaries of your retirement accounts.

Life is ever changing, and many changes may have a great impact on your estate plan. If you or your family have undergone any changes since your estate planning documents were originally created, now is the perfect time to reach out to your estate planning attorney for an estate plan checkup.

If you think it may be time to consider a revocable living trust instead of a Will, you may be interested in https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/.

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Estate Planning for Non-U.S. Citizens

A non-U.S. citizen owning property in the U.S. needs an estate plan.
There are a number of special estate planning issues a non-U.S. citizen needs to consider.

The United States has experienced a surge in immigration since 1970, and there are now approximately 45 million foreign-born people living in the United States. Some of them have become U.S. citizens, but many non-citizens live in the United States as well. See https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/special-reports/legal-immigration. Like U.S. citizens, it is essential for non-U.S. citizens to have estate plans in place. But there are also a number of special issues non-U.S. citizens need to consider.

Common law vs. civil law

There are many differences in the law between countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which have common law systems, and countries such as Germany, France, or China, which have civil law systems. For example, common law countries recognize trusts, but civil law countries do not.

In addition, common law and civil law countries have different rules regarding which country’s law will apply (e.g., in a common law country, the jurisdiction where real estate is located governs its disposition, but under civil law, the law of the country of the deceased person’s nationality or habitual residence may be the governing law).

These differences (and there are many more not discussed here!) must be taken into account in determining the best options for estate planning involving property located in other countries.

Wills and trusts

In the United States, wills and trusts are some of the instruments most commonly used by individuals to distribute their money and property. However, when a non-citizen owns property in other countries, the law of the country where the property is located may affect how it is distributed. In addition, if the property is located in another country, that country may not accept a United States will as valid. Some foreign countries may recognize it if it satisfies all of their legal formalities. However, other countries never recognize a will drafted in another country or recognize it only in certain special situations.

As a will created in the United States may not be legally valid in other countries, it may be necessary to have multiple wills, each one dealing only with money and property located in that country (and drafted by someone familiar with the local law). In addition, it is important for special care to be taken to make sure that none of the wills unintentionally revoke any previously drafted wills from another jurisdiction.

Tax Considerations for Non-Citizens

Property located abroad taxed in U.S. for U.S. residents

U.S. citizens, and non-citizens who meet the IRS’s definition of a “resident” of the United States, are subject to federal gift and estate taxes on all of their money and property, worldwide. However, U.S. residents can also benefit from the $11.58 million lifetime gift and estate tax exemption and the $15,000 gift tax annual exclusion. In general, a non-citizen is a permanent resident if he or she currently resides in the United States and intends to remain there indefinitely.

Different rules for non-residents

For non-residents, i.e., non-citizens who do not intend to remain in the United States, only money and property “situated” in the United States is subject to estate and gift tax in the United States. However, their estate tax exemption drops from $11.58 million to $60,000, which could result in a very large estate tax bill if the non-resident has a lot of property located in the U.S. Moreover, they may also be subject to estate tax in their country of citizenship, raising the issue of double taxation. The United States has entered into an estate and/or gift tax treaty with a limited number of countries allowing a citizen of one of the treaty countries who owns property to avoid the possibility of both countries taxing the same asset at the time of death.

Special rules for non-citizen spouses

Unlimited marital deduction not available. A U.S. citizen who is married to a non-citizen should keep in mind that the unlimited marital deduction is not available for gifts or bequests to non-citizens, even if the spouse is a permanent resident. If the spouse receiving the assets is not an U.S. citizen, the tax-free amount that can be transferred to a spouse is only $157,000 a year (in 2020).  However, the unlimited marital deduction is available for transfers from a non-citizen spouse to a citizen spouse.

Tip: A non-citizen spouse can inherit from a U.S. citizen spouse free of estate tax if the U.S. citizen creates a special trust called a qualified domestic trust (QDOT). The U.S. citizen can leave property to the trust, instead of directly to the non-citizen spouse, with special rules applying as to who can be Trustee and how distribution may be made.

Estate planning for non-U.S. citizens is very complex. If you are a non-citizen or are married to a non-citizen, an experienced estate planning attorney can help you think through all of the issues that may affect how you plan for the future.

This article references that wills and trusts are commonly used in the United States to transfer assets at death. If you are interested in learning more about Wills and living trusts see https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/

 

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