5 Essential Tips for Executors or Trustees

Estate Planning, Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

Serving as executor or trustee of a will or a trust is an honor… but it’s also a job—a BIG job—and not one to be taken lightly. The role of executor or trustee can be one of great financial power, but it carries with it a heavy fiduciary obligation. Fiduciary obligation means that an executor or trustee must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries; it means that although the executor or trustee may be doing all the work, he or she may see very little return on that work, which is all for the benefit of the named beneficiaries.

If you have been nominated (or are currently serving) as an executor or trustee there are a few things you’ll want to remember as you go about your duties:

1. The will or trust is your guide, the mission statement by which you should operate; read and understand the document completely, and have an attorney help you, if necessary.

2. You need to be pro-active—to an extent. If you are managing a large amount of money or assets over a period of time it is probably not in the best interests of the beneficiary to let those funds sit in a savings account. Create (with an advisor, if necessary) a financial plan for the trust assets.

3. Although you may be handling the estate assets, you should not have any personal financial dealings with the trust. You should under no circumstances borrow from or lend money to the trust. Keep your finances separate!

4. Communication and transparency is key! Keep detailed records of all of your actions and transactions regarding the will or trust, and send regular reports to the beneficiaries. Regular communication prevents unhappy surprises or angry lawsuits in the future.

5. You don’t have to do it alone. If you were picked as a trustee because of your financial knowledge and experience—great! But if you were picked because you are the oldest, or the most responsible, or the favorite you may feel overwhelmed by the job ahead of you. Don’t try to muddle through alone, get the help and support of an experienced attorney or advisor.

A Low-Pressure (And Fun) Way to Discuss Legacy and Estate Planning

Estate Planning, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

The hardest part of legacy planning or estate planning isn’t necessarily choosing the right fiduciaries, or deciding how to distribute your wealth fairly among your loved ones… the hardest part of legacy planning or estate planning is often simply talking about it with family. In fact, having “The Discussion” can be such a daunting task that many families simply don’t do it, choosing instead to take their chances when the family patriarch or matriarch passes away and the succession plan is revealed.

But avoiding the subject isn’t going to do you or your family any favors. More family infighting takes place after a death than at any other time. After all, this is when loved ones are grieving and emotions are high, when the central family figure or peacemaker may no longer be with you, and seemingly unequal inheritance distributions can no longer be explained.

What if there was a way to have “The Discussion” before it was forced upon you? What if there was a way to make that legacy and estate planning discussion low-pressure and even fun? That is exactly what husband and wife psychologist team Carolyn Friend and James Weiner have done with their book and accompanying card game, The Legacy Conversation: the missing gem in wealth planning.

A review of the Conversation Starters card game in Forbes gives a more detailed description of the game, including 7 or so sample questions to get the juices flowing; obvious questions such as “What cherished possession might your family fight over?” to the not-so-obvious questions such as “Have you ever found wisdom in a song’s lyrics? Name that tune.” The point of the Conversation Starters is not merely to discuss the family legacy, but to get to know your family members better, enjoy each other, and perhaps even grow closer in the process.

If your family has been putting off the necessary discussion of succession and legacy planning, this might be just the game you need. Don’t be afraid to tackle the difficult subjects, you might find you enjoy them more than you expect. And when you’re ready, call our office. We can help your family with the practical details and legal legwork.

The Ins and Outs of Incapacity

Estate Planning, Trust Administration1 Comment

Most people think that having a trust is about controlling (to an extent) what happens to your assets after you die. This is true, but a trust actually has a much broader scope: a trust can also protect and provide for your loved ones—and more importantly, it can protect and provide for you—if you should ever become incapacitated.

In basic terms, incapacity means that you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself. Sometimes it is easy to determine incapacity: the person is in a coma or unconscious and obviously unable to make decisions. But sometimes it’s more difficult. What about whether or not a person is able to make rational decisions? What if someone is suffering from Alzheimer’s, Dementia, or even a severe mental illness… should that person be making important financial decisions?

It is important to include a discussion of incapacity in your trust, because this one word carries a lot of weight. It is when you are incapacitated that your successor trustee will take over, when the agent nominated in your Healthcare Directive will get the authority to make health care decisions for you, and when your financial Power of Attorney will go into effect. With so much hanging on a single word, it’s important to know exactly what that word means.

Every standard trust should have a definition of incapacity as determined by a court of law. This means that you are deemed incapacitated when a court of competent jurisdiction determines that you are unable to legally handle your own affairs. A really good trust will also include a definition of incapacity as determined by two physicians; which means that two independent, licensed physicians have examined you and have determined that in their opinion you are unable to effectively manage your property or financial affairs.

There are many reasons why you want to have more than just the standard definition of incapacity, the primary reason being that court proceedings can be lengthy and filled with red tape. While your agent is spending days or weeks going through the legal process, your estate is languishing and your financial agent is powerless to take action on your behalf. Giving two physicians the power to determine your incapacity will circumvent the red tape and prevent lengthy delays.

Call or come into our office for more information about incapacity and what it means in your trust or Healthcare Directive.

10 Phone Calls to Make After the Death of a Loved One

Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

Coping with the death of a loved one can be a crushing task. There are so many things to do and details to remember; all of this at a time when each small task can serve as a reminder of your loss. At such a time it can be helpful to know that you’re not going through this alone; there are a number of people who can help when you begin to feel overwhelmed. To relieve some of the stress, and help ensure that no important task is forgotten, we offer a list of people to call after the death of a loved one:

Funeral home - This will likely be your first call. The funeral home you or your loved one has selected will be able to help you with a lot of the immediate details and tasks. The funeral director will also be able to help you obtain 10-20 copies of the death certificate, something you will need later.

Family and Friends - This probably goes without saying. Not only will you want to notify family and friends, but they can also help with a lot of the endless tasks and overwhelming details. Don’t be afraid to delegate.

Veteran’s office (if deceased was a Vet.) - If the deceased was a Veteran you may have to stop benefit payments; you may also be able to get assistance with the funeral or memorial service.

The deceased’s employer - You will need to do this not only to inform the employer of the death, but also regarding termination of health insurance.

Attorney or Tax Professional - You will need to know what to do about probating the deceased’s estate, filing tax returns, dealing with bank accounts, etc. An attorney or tax professional can help. It is especially important to find out if your loved one had any existing estate documents.

Office of Social Security - If your loved one was receiving benefits you’ll need to stop payments. You will also want to find out if survivors are entitled to any benefits.

Insurance company of the deceased – You will probably need to file a claim. This is something your attorney or accountant may be able to help with.

Local Newspaper - You’ll want to publish an obituary or notice of death, as well as information about the funeral or memorial service.

Credit card companies and utilities - Give notification of death and pay off any remaining balances.

Bank - Arrange to change any joint accounts or to open an account in your name. Do not close any accounts right away!

Although this list is a good starting point; a complete list of people to call and things to do will depend on where the deceased lived and the details of their estate. Contact your loved one’s estate planning attorney (or your own) to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

Take Action in the Face of Estate Tax Uncertainty

Estate Planning, Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

If you’ve been reading our blog regularly then you know that the 2010 estate tax repeal has caused no end of confusion and uncertainty; not only for those who have been dealing with probate and trust administration since the tax was first repealed, but also for those who are trying to think ahead and do the right thing for their spouses and children. Many people have come to the erroneous conclusion that they have no choice but to stand by and wait until the Washington politicians make up their minds about whether or not to restore the estate tax retroactively—but we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to wait to protect your assets and your family.

Forbes.com recently published an article entitled How to Protect Your Family From Estate Tax Uncertainty. This article suggests that there are a number of steps you can take right now to protect your heirs and your assets, even if you don’t know what changes lawmakers may enact tomorrow or 2 months from now. Their suggestions include everything from working with your estate planning attorney on contingency plans to account for anomalies such as no estate tax or minimum exemptions, to common sense action items such as taking the time now to track your cost basis for assets (to help your executor and heirs determine the change in value for tax purposes.) The Forbes article also suggests that some people may want to plan to save by giving—taking advantage of the gift tax exemption amounts.

There are always steps you can take to ensure that your estate plan is up to date, our firm can be your compass and your guide; we can help your family prepare for whatever the future may have in store.

10 Tips for Potential (or Existing) Trustees

Estate Planning, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

The creation of a trust and estate plan includes spending a certain amount of time choosing the people who will be your fiduciaries—the people who will carry out your wishes. One of the most important fiduciaries is your trustee, who is involved in just about every aspect of the administration of your trust. Most people choose someone close to them to serve as trustee: a best friend, son or daughter, brother or sister. Choosing someone who knows you and your family to serve in this role can be beneficial in many ways, but if that person doesn’t have a financial or legal background the responsibilities can be overwhelming!

If you want to give your trustee a head start (or if you’ve been nominated as a trustee and need a little help yourself) this article from the Elder Law Answers website shares “9 Do’s and 1 Don’t” of being a trustee. These suggestions will help a potential or new trustee better understand their responsibilities and the scope of the job to come. Advice such as #1, “Do read the trust document”; or #3, “Do keep the best interests of the beneficiaries in mind at all times” may seem obvious now, but it’s not always so clear when you’re beset by insistent and emotional relatives. The more technical tips such as #2, “Do create a checking account for the trust”; and #9, “Do file income tax returns for the trust” are invaluable starter-steps for someone who has never done this before.

But the most important tip to remember is the one don’t: #10, “Don’t fly solo. Get professional advice to make sure you are correctly fulfilling your role.” If you or the people you’ve chosen as your trustee are ever in doubt, please don’t hesitate to call our office for help.