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I) Estate Planning Overview

  1. What is Estate Planning?

1. What is Estate Planning?

Estate planning is a process involving the counsel of professional advisors who are familiar with your goals and concerns, your assets and how they are owned, and your family structure. It can involve the services of a variety of professionals, including your lawyer, accountant, financial planner, life insurance advisor, banker and broker.

Estate planning covers the transfer of property at death as well as a variety of other personal matters and may or may not involve tax planning. The core document most often associated with this process is your will.

II) Wills

  1. What Happens if You Die Without A Will?
  2. What A Will Does
  3. What A Will Does Not Do
  4. How To Execute a Will

1. What Happens if You Die Without A Will?

If you die intestate (without a will), your state's laws of descent and distribution will determine who receives your property by default. These laws vary from state to state, but typically the distribution would be to your spouse and children, or if none, to other family members. A state's plan often reflects the legislature's guess as to how most people would dispose of their estates and builds in protections for certain beneficiaries, particularly minor children. That plan may or may not reflect your actual wishes, and some of the built-in protections may not be necessary in a harmonious family setting. A will allows you to alter the state's default plan to suit your personal preferences.

2. What a Will Does

A will provides for the distribution of property owned by you at the time of your death in any manner you choose (subject to the forced heirship laws of some states that prevent disinheriting a spouse and, in some cases, children). Your will cannot, however, govern the disposition of properties that pass outside your probate estate (such as certain joint property, life insurance, retirement plans, and employee death benefits) unless they are payable to your estate.

Wills can be of various degrees of complexity and can be utilized to achieve a wide range of family and tax objectives. If a will provides for the outright distribution of assets, it is sometimes characterized as a simple will. If the will establishes one or more trusts, it is often called a testamentary trust will. Alternatively, the will may leave probate assets to a preexisting inter vivos trust (created in your lifetime), in which case it is called a pour over will. In either case, the purpose of the trust arrangement (as opposed to outright distribution) is to ensure continued property management and creditor protection for the surviving family members, to provide for charities, and to minimize taxes.

Aside from providing for the intended disposition of your property to spouse, children etc., there are a number of other important objectives that may be accomplished in your will.

  • You may designate a guardian for your minor child or children if you have survived the other parent and, by judicious use of a trust and appointment of a trustee, eliminate the need for bonds and supervision by the court regarding the care of each minor child's estate.
  • You may designate an executor of your estate in your will and eliminate the need for a bond; in some states the designation of an independent executor will eliminate the need for court supervision of the settlement of your estate.
  • You may choose to acknowledge or otherwise provide for a child (e.g., stepchild, godchild, etc.) in whom you have an interest, an elderly parent, or other individuals.
  • If you are acting as custodian for the assets of a child or grandchild under the Uniform Gift (or Transfers) to Minors Act, you may designate your successor custodian and avoid the expense of a court appointment.

Good planning can also enhance your support of religious, educational, and other charitable causes.

3. What A Will Does Not Do

A will does not govern the transfer of certain types of assets, called nonprobate property, which by operation of law or contract pass to someone else on your death. For example, real estate and other assets owned with rights of survivorship pass automatically to the surviving owner. Likewise, an IRA or insurance policy payable to a named beneficiary passes outside the will.

How to Execute a Will

Wills are signed in the presence of witnesses and certain formalities must be observed. A later amendment to a will is called a codicil and must be signed with the same formalities. In some states, the will may refer to a memorandum disposing of tangible personal property, such as furniture, jewelry, automobiles, etc., which may be changed from time to time without the formalities of a will. In many states, a will that is formally executed with the signatures notarized is deemed to be self proved and may be admitted to probate without testimony of witnesses or other additional proof.

III) Power of Attorney

  1. Introduction
  2. Who Should Be Your Agent?
  3. How The Agent Should Sign?
  4. Beyond Signing Checks
  5. What if I move?
  6. Will my Power of Attorney expire?

1. Introduction

An important part of lifetime planning is the power of attorney. Valid in all states, these documents give one or more persons the power to act on your behalf. The power may be limited to a particular activity (e.g., closing the sale of your home) or general in its application, empowering one or more persons to act on your behalf in a variety of situations. It may take effective immediately or only upon the occurrence of a future event (e.g., a determination that you are unable to act for yourself). The latter are "springing" powers of attorney. It may give temporary or continuous, permanent authority to act on your behalf. A power of attorney may be revoked, but most states require written notice of revocation to the person named to act for you.

The person named in a power of attorney to act on your behalf is commonly referred to as your "agent" or "attorney-in-fact." With a valid power of attorney, your agent can take any action permitted in the document. Often your agent must present the actual document to invoke the power. For example, if another person is acting on your behalf to sell an automobile, the motor vehicles department generally will require that the power of attorney be presented before your agent's authority to sign the title will be honored. Similarly, an agent who signs documents to buy or sell real property on your behalf must present the power of attorney to the title company. The same applies to sale of securities or opening and closing bank accounts. However, your agent generally should not need to present the power of attorney when signing checks for you.

Why would anyone give such sweeping authority to another person? One answer is convenience. If you are buying or selling assets and do not wish to appear in person to close the transaction, you may take advantage of a power of attorney. Another important reason to use power of attorney is to prepare for situations when you may not be able to act on your own behalf due to absence or incapacity. Such a disability may be temporary (e.g., due to travel, accident, or illness) or it may be permanent.

If you do not have a power of attorney and become unable to manage your personal or business affairs, it may become necessary for a court to appoint one or more people to act for you. People appointed in this manner are referred to as guardians, conservators, or committees, depending upon your local state law. If a court proceeding, sometimes known as intervention, is needed, than you may not have the ability to choose the person who will act for you. With A power of attorney, you choose who will act and define their authority and its limits, if any.

2. Who Should Be Your Agent?

You may wish to choose a family member to act on your behalf. Many people name their spouses or one or more children. In naming more than one person to act as agent at the same time, be alert to the possibility that all may not be available to act when needed, or they may not agree. The designation of co-agents should indicate whether you wish to have the majority act in the absence of full availability and agreement. You should name a successor agent to address the possibility that the person you name as agent may be unavailable or unable to act when the time comes.

There are no special qualifications necessary for someone to act as an attorney-in-fact except that the person must not be a minor or otherwise incapacitated. The best choice is someone you trust.

3. How The Agent Should Sign?

Assume Elvis Presley appoints his wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, as his agent in a written power of attorney. Priscilla, as agent, must sign as follows: Elvis Presley, by Priscilla Beaulieu under POA or Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, attorney-in-fact for Elvis Presley.

4. Beyond Signing Checks

In addition to managing your day-to-day financial affairs, your attorney-in-fact can take steps to implement your estate plan. Although an agent cannot revise your will on your behalf, some jurisdictions permit an attorney-in-fact to create or amend trusts for you during your lifetime, or to transfer your assets to trusts you created. It is prudent to include in the power of attorney a clear statement of whether you wish your agent to have these powers.

Gifts are an important tool for many estate plans, and your attorney-in-fact can make gifts on your behalf, subject to guidelines that you set forth in your power of attorney. For example, you may wish to permit your attorney-in-fact to make "annual exclusion" gifts (currently up to $11,000 in value per recipient per year) on your behalf to your children and grandchildren. It is important that the lawyer who prepares your power of attorney draft the document in a way that does not expose your attorney-in-fact to unintended estate tax consequences. While some states permit attorneys-in-fact to make gifts as a matter of statute, others require explicit authorization in the power of attorney.

State Laws Vary

Beyond the ability to make gifts on your behalf, many aspects of a power of attorney are governed by state law. Generally, the law of the state in which you reside at the time you sign a power of attorney will govern the powers and actions of the agent(s) under that document.

5. What if I move?

Generally, a power of attorney that is valid when you sign it will remain valid even if you change your state of residence. Although it should not be necessary to sign a new power of attorney merely because you have moved to a new state, it is a good idea to take the opportunity to update your power of attorney.

6. Will my Power of Attorney expire?

Some states used to require renewal of powers of attorney for continuing validity. Today, most states permit a "durable" power of attorney that remains valid once signed until you die or revoke the document. However, you should periodically meet with your lawyer to revisit a power of attorney and consider whether your choice of agent still meets your needs and learn whether developments in state law affect your power of attorney.

IV) Living Wills, Health Care Proxies

  1. Living Wills
  2. Health Care Proxy

1. Living Wills

A living will is your written expression of how you want to be treated in certain medical conditions. Depending on state law, this document may permit you to express whether or not you wish to be given life-sustaining treatments in the event you are terminally ill or injured, to decide in advance whether you wish to be provided food and water via intravenous devices ("tube feeding"), and to give other medical directions that impact the end of life. "Life-sustaining treatment" means the use of available medical machinery and techniques, such as heart-lung machines, ventilators, and other medical equipment and techniques that will sustain and possibly extend your life, but which will not by themselves cure your condition. In addition to terminal illness or injury situations, most states permit you to express your preferences as to treatment using life-sustaining equipment and/or tube feeding for medical conditions that leave you permanently unconscious and without detectable brain activity.

A living will applies in situations where the decision to use such treatments may prolong your life for a limited period of time and not obtaining such treatment would result in your death. It does not mean that medical professionals would deny you pain medications and other treatments that would relieve pain or otherwise make you more comfortable. Living wills do not determine your medical treatment in situations that do not affect your continued life, such as routine medical treatment and non life-threatening medical conditions. In all states the determination as to whether or not you are in such a medical condition is determined by medical professionals, usually your attending physician and at least one other medical doctor who has examined you and/or reviewed your medical situation. Most states permit you to include other medical directions that you wish your physicians to be aware of regarding the types of treatment you do or do not wish to receive.

2. Health Care Proxy

A "health care proxy," sometimes called a "health care surrogate" or "durable medical power of attorney," is the appointment of a person to whom you grant authority to make medical decisions in the event you are unable to express your preferences. Most commonly, this situation occurs either because you are unconscious or because your mental state is such that you do not have the legal capacity to make your own decisions. Normally, a single individual is appointed as your health care proxy, though quite commonly one or more alternate persons are designated in the event your first choice proxy is unavailable. As with the living will, medical professionals will make the initial determination as to whether or not you have the capacity to make your own medical treatment decisions. The health care proxy is a durable power of attorney specifically designed to cover medical treatment. As with living wills, depe nding on your state of residence, it may be a state-determined form or may be drafted individually by your attorney.

V) The Probate Process

  1. What is Probate?
  2. Should you Avoid Probate?

1. What is Probate

At death, your will goes through probate. Probate simply means the process by which your last will is determined to be your final dispositive statement and which confirms the appointment of the person or institution you have named to administer your estate. The term probate is also used in the larger sense of probating your estate. In this sense, probate means the process by which assets are gathered, applied to pay debts, taxes and expenses of administration, and distributed to those designated as beneficiaries in the will. The executor or personal representative named in the will is in charge of this process, and probate provides an orderly method for administration of the estate. The executor is held accountable by the beneficiaries (and sometimes is supervised formally by a probate court). The executor is entitled to a reasonable fee or commission. Probate law generally encourages or provides for partial distribution during the period of administration; assets may generally be distributed in kind rather than sold during this time. The tax laws generally focus the responsibility for death tax filings and payments on the executor under a will. Thus, the choice of an executor is an important one.

The basic job of administration and accounting for assets must be done whether the estate is handled by an executor in probate or probate is avoided. In the recent past, lawyers and other professionals have advocated the use of probate avoidance techniques (including revocable trusts) in states where the probate process was perceived as being too slow and too costly. Many states have simplified or streamlined their probate processes over the years. In such states there is now less reason to employ such probate avoidance techniques.

2. Should You Avoid Probate?

The living trust is often marketed as a vehicle that allows you to "avoid probate" upon your death. Probate is the court-supervised process of transferring property at death pursuant to the terms of a will. Many types of property routinely pass outside of the probate process. These include:

  • life insurance or retirement plan proceeds which pass to a named beneficiary rather than your estate
  • real estate or bank or brokerage accounts held in joint names with right of survivorship

While it is true that the property passing under the terms of a living trust upon the death of the maker of the trust will "avoid probate," it should be noted that there may or may not be actual value in that result. Probate laws are different in every state. In some states there are statutorily mandated court or attorney fees while in others those fees may be minimal. Many states have expedited or simplified court proceedings that are efficient and inexpensive for small or simple estates. A properly drafted will in many states can eliminate some of the steps otherwise required in the probate proceedings. In addition much of the delay and red tape customarily associated with probate is a result of the tax laws and tax filing requirements, which can not be eliminated through a living trust and the avoidance of probate.

A living trust can almost never totally avoid probate and a simple will is needed to "pour over" to the trust any property that has not been transferred to the trust during life.

Property that passes at death through a revocable living trust must first be transferred to the trust, administered by a trustee who may or may not charge fees, and then transferred out of the trust to the beneficiary. These costs and the costs associated with tax filings are often ignored by living trust marketers. There may be other costs as well depending upon the jurisdiction, such as real estate transfer taxes. The comparison of cost between probate and a living trust should be made on a case by case basis.