(858) 432-3923 tara@cheeverlaw.com
Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 1

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 1

If you’ve created an estate plan, it likely includes traditional wealth and assets like finances, real estate, personal property, and family heirlooms. But unless your plan also includes your digital assets, there’s a good chance this online property will be lost forever following your death or incapacity.

What’s more, even if these assets are included in your plan, unless your executor and/or trustee knows the accounts exist and how to access them, you risk burdening your family and friends with the often lengthy and expensive process of locating and accessing them. And depending on the terms of service governing your online accounts, your heirs may not be able to inherit some types of digital assets at all.

With our lives increasingly being lived online, our digital assets can be quite extensive and extremely valuable. Given this, it’s more important than ever that your estate plan includes detailed provisions to protect and pass on such property in the event of your incapacity or death.

Types of digital assets
Digital assets generally fall into two categories: those with financial value and those with sentimental value.

Those with financial value typically include cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, online payment accounts like PayPal, domain names, websites and blogs generating revenue, as well as other works like photos, videos, music, and writing that generate royalties. Such assets have real financial worth for your heirs, not only in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacity, but potentially for years to come.

Digital assets with sentimental value include email accounts, photos, video, music, publications, social media accounts, apps, and websites or blogs with no revenue potential. While this type of property typically won’t be of any monetary value, it can offer incredible sentimental value and comfort for your family when you’re no longer around.

Owned vs licensed

Though you might not know it, you don’t actually own many of your digital assets at all. For example, you do own certain assets like cryptocurrency and PayPal accounts, so you can transfer ownership of these in a Will or Trust. But when you purchase some digital property, such as Kindle e-books and iTunes music files, all you really own is a license to use it. And in many cases, that license is for your personal use only and is non-transferable.

Whether or not you can transfer such licensed property depends almost entirely on the account’s Terms of Service Agreements (TOSA) to which you agreed (or more likely, simply clicked a box without reading) upon opening the account. While many TOSA restrict access to accounts only to the original user, some allow access by heirs or executors in certain situations, while others say nothing about transferability.

Carefully review the TOSA of your online accounts to see whether you own the asset itself or just a license to use it. If the TOSA states the asset is licensed, not owned, and offers no method for transferring your license, you’ll likely have no way to pass the asset to anyone else, even if it’s included in your estate plan.

To make matters more complicated, though you heirs may be able to access your digital assets if you’ve provided them with your account login and passwords, doing so may actually violate the TOSA and/or privacy laws. In order to legally access such accounts, your heirs will have to prove they have the right to access it, a process which up until recently was a major legal grey area.

Fortunately, a growing number of states are adopting a law that helps clarify how your digital assets can be accessed in the event if your death or incapacity.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted in 37 states so far, lays out guidelines under which fiduciaries, such as executors and trustees, can access these digital accounts.  California adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Access Act on September 24, 2016. The Act allows you to grant a fiduciary access to your digital accounts upon your death or incapacity, either by opting them in with an online tool furnished by the service provider or through your estate plan.

The Act offers three-tiers for prioritizing access. The first tier gives priority to the online provider’s access-authorization tool for handling accounts of a decedent. For example, Google’s “inactive account manager” tool lets you choose who can access and manage your account after you pass away. Facebook has a similar tool that allows you to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage your personal profile.

If an online tool is not available or if the decedent did not use it, the law’s second tier gives priority to directions given by the decedent in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other means. If no such instructions are provided, then the third tier stipulates the provider’s TOSA will govern access.

As long as you use the provider’s online tool—if one is available—and/or include instructions in your estate plan, your digital assets should be accessible per your wishes in states that have adopted the law. However, all 50 states are expected to adopt the Act soon, so even if the law isn’t on the books in your state, you should take it into serious consideration when planning.

Look to us for guidance
In the second part of this series, we’ll offer practical steps for preserving and passing on your digital assets in your estate plan. Meanwhile, contact me at (858) 432-3923 if you have any questions about your online property or how to include it in your estate plan.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series, discussing the best ways to protect and preserve your digital assets through estate planning.

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When Something is NOT Better Than Nothing—Part 2

When Something is NOT Better Than Nothing—Part 2

Last week, I shared the first part of this series discussing the hidden dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning. In part two, I cover one of the greatest risks posed by DIY documents.

You might think you can save time and money by using do-it-yourself estate planning documents you find online. You’re probably anxious to check estate planning off your life’s to-do list, and these forms offer a seemingly quick and inexpensive way to handle this important task.

You may even realize such generic plans aren’t as high quality as those drafted with an attorney’s help, but with your hectic schedule, a DIY will is just way more convenient. Besides, having “something” in place is better than having nothing, right?

Unfortunately, this is one case in which SOMETHING is not better than nothing.

Indeed, the false sense of security offered by DIY wills can lead you to believe you have things covered and no longer have to worry about estate planning. The reality, however, is that such generic forms could end up costing the loved ones you leave behind more money and heartache than if you’d never gotten around to doing anything at all.

In this way, DIY wills and other legal documents are among the most dangerous choices you can make for the people you love. In part one, I discussed the many ways DIY plans can fail to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, and here I’ll explain how these generic documents can leave the people you love most of all—your children—at risk.

The people you love most
It’s probably distressing to think that by using a DIY will you could force your loved ones into court or conflict in the event of your incapacity or death. And if you’re like most parents, it’s probably downright unimaginable to contemplate your children’s care falling into the wrong hands.

Yet that’s exactly what could happen if you rely on free or low-cost fill-in-the-blank wills found online, or even if you hire a lawyer who isn’t equipped or trained to plan for the needs of parents with minor children.

Naming and legally documenting guardians entails a number of complexities that most people aren’t aware of. Even lawyers with decades of experience frequently make at least one of six common errors when naming long-term legal guardians.

If Wills drafted with the help of a professional are likely to leave your children at risk, the chances that you’ll get things right on your own are pretty much zero.

What could go wrong?
If your DIY will names legal guardians for your kids in the event of your death, that’s great. But does it include back-ups? And if you named a couple to serve, how is that handled? Do you still want one of them if the other is unavailable due to illness, injury, death, or divorce?

And what happens if you become incapacitated and are unable to care for your children? You might assume the guardians named in the DIY will would automatically get custody, but your will isn’t even operative in the event of your incapacity.

Or perhaps the guardians you named in the will live far from your home, so it would take them a few days to get there. If you haven’t made legally-binding arrangements for the immediate care of your children, it’s highly likely that they will be placed with child protective services until those guardians arrive.

Even if you name family who live nearby as guardians, your kids are still at risk because it’s possible they might not be immediately available if and when needed.

And who even knows where your will is or how to access it?

There are simply far too many potential errors you can make when you go it alone.

The Kids Protection Plan®

To ensure your children are never raised by someone you don’t trust or taken into the custody of strangers (even temporarily), consider creating a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan®, which only a select few Estate Planning Attorneys are trained and licensed to counsel you through and prepare.

Get the right “something”
Protecting your family and assets in the event of your death or incapacity is such a monumentally important task you should never consider winging it with a DIY plan. No matter how busy you are or how little wealth you own, the potentially disastrous consequences inherent in such plans are simply too great—often they’re not even worth the paper they’re printed on.

Plus, proper estate planning doesn’t have to be super expensive, stressful, or time consuming. Working with me as your Estate Planning Attorney, planning will not only be as stress-free as possible, but I offer options for all budgets and asset values.

What’s more, many of my clients actually find the process highly rewarding. My proprietary systems provide the type of peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’ve not only checked estate planning off your to-do list, but you’ve done it using the most forethought, experience, and knowledge available.

Act now
If you’ve yet to do any planning, contact me to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session. This evaluation will allow us to determine if a simple will or some other strategy, such as a living trust, is your best option.

If you’ve already created a plan—whether it’s a DIY job or one created with another lawyer’s help—contact me at (858) 432-3923 to schedule an Estate Plan Review and Check-Up. I’ll ensure your plan is not only properly drafted and updated, but that it has all of the protections in place to prevent your children from ever being placed in the care of strangers or anyone you’d never want raising them.

No matter what you do, make certain you have a “something” that’s actually better than nothing. Contact me as your Estate Planning Attorney today, and I’ll provide you with that level of confidence—and so much more.

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5 Reasons to Protect Your Retirement Accounts Now

5 Reasons to Protect Your Retirement Accounts Now

During your lifetime, your retirement account has good asset protection, but as soon as you pass that account to a loved one, that protection evaporates. This means one lawsuit and POOF! Your life long, hard earned savings could be gone. Your heirs could be left penniless.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. A special trust called a “Standalone Retirement Trust” (SRT) can protect inherited retirement accounts from your beneficiaries’ creditors.

When your spouse, child, or other loved one inherits your retirement account, their creditors have the power to seize it and take it as their own.

If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of protecting your retirement account so your family can benefit – rather than the creditors. Here are 5 reasons to protect your retirement account:

  1. You have substantial combined retirement plans. Spouses can use an SRT to shield one or the other from creditors.
  2. You believe your beneficiary may be “less than frugal” with the funds. Anyone concerned about how their beneficiary will spend the inheritance should absolutely consider an SRT as you can provide oversight and instruction on how much they receive – and when.
  3. You are concerned about lawsuits, divorce, or other possible legal actions. If your beneficiary is part of a lawsuit, is about to divorce, file for bankruptcy, or is involved in any type of legal action, an SRT can protect the inherited retirement accounts from those creditors.
  4. You have beneficiaries who receive assistance. If one of your beneficiaries receives, or may qualify for, a need-based governmental assistance program, it’s important to know that inheriting from an IRA may cause them to lose those benefits. An SRT can be drafted to avoid disqualification.
  5. You are remarried with children from a previous marriage. If you are remarried and have children from a previous marriage, your spouse could intentionally (or even unintentionally) disinherit your children. You can avoid this by naming the spouse as a lifetime beneficiary of the trust and then having the remainder pass onto your children from a previous marriage after your spouse’s death.

You’ve Worked Hard To Protect & Grow Your Wealth – Let’s Keep It That Way

You worked hard to save the money in those retirement accounts and your beneficiaries’ creditors shouldn’t be able take it from them. Give me a call at (858) 432-3923 and let me show you how an SRT can help you protect your assets as well as provide tax deferred growth.

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Big “Life Changes” Often Mean Big “Estate Plan Changes”

Big “Life Changes” Often Mean Big “Estate Plan Changes”

Many people who put together an estate plan do so when they start a family – assuming they put an estate plan together at all during their lifetime. While putting an estate plan together is a good thing to do, many people make few updates once the plan has been created, despite other key life events happening over the years. This is a major mistake that can place your hard-earned money and assets into a costly probate or into the wrong hands.

Estate planning must be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that your plan still accomplishes your goals and objectives and will work the way you want it to at incapacity and at death.

To make sure you do not run into these issues and your wishes are followed in the event of your incapacity at at your death, below are nine life decisions or events that should get you thinking about updating — or creating — your estate plan right away.

Important Life Decisions

There are several important life decisions that you should factor into your estate plan. They include:

  1. Getting married: Estate planning after tying the knot does not have to be complicated. Simply updating your beneficiary information, purchasing a life insurance policy, and updating emergency contact information are all things that should happen right away. You should also consider preparing a will and a living will. As your marriage progresses, it may make sense to consider a revocable trust as well. Having discussions with your spouse about how you want your estate to be managed depending on different scenarios is also important.
  2. Getting divorced: While couples do not plan for divorce, many spouses go through this process. For many, the emotional toll and legal complexities of divorce can be overwhelming. Oftentimes estate planning is overshadowed by the divorce, resulting in unintended consequences. Making sure you make changes to your estate plan as soon as your divorce proceedings have been finalized will make sure your ex will not end up with the house, life insurance proceeds or other assets of yours.
  3. Buying life insurance: These policies are present in virtually all estate plans and serve as a useful source of liquidity, education-expense coverage, and financial support for your family or loved ones. Make sure to list all beneficiaries under the policy and make sure to update them as time passes.
  4. Buying a new home: When you purchase or refinance a home or other real estate, you should always make sure the asset is titled appropriately. If you use a trust, sometimes a lender will take a property out of a trust during a refinance. The key is to make sure your title furthers your goals.
  5. Having a child: While adding another member to your family is an exciting time in your life, it is not an excuse to forget to update your estate plan. A new child necessitates major revisions to your estate plan. This not only affects who will inherit your estate upon your death but will also require you deciding who will be the guardian of your children if you should die before they become adults. As your child grows and matures — and more children are added — your estate plan will likely continue to change.
  6. Starting a business: If you start a business or ownership interest changes in a current business, you need to understand what impact these changes have on your estate plan. Even more, there may be tax implications that could affect your heirs without proper planning ahead of time.
  7. Death of a loved one: The passing away of someone listed in your will is often overlooked in estate planning. These individuals may be named guardians to your children, have an inheritance allocated to them, be designated as emergency contacts, or may be named as executors of your estate. Leaving the role vacant can have terrible unintended consequences and necessitates transitioning new people to fill the void left behind by your loved one’s death right away.
  8. Moving to another state or country: When you change your residency from one state to another, you must review your estate plan to make sure it conforms with local laws. The same is true if you move to another country. Likewise, if you have property in more than one state or country, special attention must be paid to how those assets will be distributed according to your estate plan and applicable law.
  9. Change in work benefits: Whether this happened through a promotion, demotion, or your employer just changed the benefits they offer, this could impact the type amount of assets you have available. Look at your estate plan to see if your goals are still achievable or if you can do more with what you have.

Estate Planning Advice

Planning based on your life stages is important because your circumstances over the years will change. The only thing certain in life is change. Your estate plan must be reviewed and updated regularly to reflect your life’s changes. If you have any questions about estate planning — or have had to make a recent big decision in your life — contact me at (858) 432-3923 to learn more about your options.

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How to Choose a Trustee

How to Choose a Trustee

When you establish a Trust, you name someone to be the Trustee. Generally, you are the Initial Trustee for your Revocable Living Trust.  A Successor Trustee steps in your shoes in the event of your incapacity and at your death.  That person does what you do right now with your financial affairs – collect income, pay bills and taxes, save and invest for the future, buy and sell assets, provide for your loved ones, keep accurate records, and generally keep things organized and in good order.

The Key Takeaways

  • You can be Trustee of your Revocable Living Trust. If you are married, your spouse can be co-Trustee.
  • Most Irrevocable Trusts do not allow you to be Trustee.
  • Even though you may be allowed to be your own Trustee, you may not be the best choice.
  • You can also choose an adult child, trusted friend or a professional or corporate Trustee.
  • Naming someone else to be co-Trustee with you is an option should the circumstances call for it.  Some reasons for this include helping them become familiar with your trust, allows them to learn firsthand how you want the trust to operate, and lets you evaluate the co-Trustee’s abilities.

Who Can Be Your Trustee

If you have a Revocable Living Trust, you can be your own Trustee. If you are married, your spouse can be a Trustee with you. This way, if either of you become incapacitated or die, the other can continue to handle your financial affairs without interruption. Most married couples who own assets together, especially those who have been married for some time, are usually co-Trustees.

You don’t have to be your own Trustee. Some people choose an adult son or daughter, a trusted friend or another relative. Some like having the experience and investment skills of a professional or corporate trustee (e.g., a licensed private Professional Fiduciary, a bank Trust department or Trust Company). Naming someone else as Trustee or co-Trustee with you does not mean you lose control. The Trustee you name must follow the instructions in your Trust and report to you. You can even replace your Trustee should you change your mind.

When to Consider a Professional or Corporate Trustee

You may be elderly, widowed, or in declining health and have no children or other trusted relatives living nearby.  Or you may not have friends or family that you fully trust for this important duty.  Or your candidates may not have the time or ability to manage your trust. You may simply not have the time, desire or experience to manage your investments by yourself. Also, certain Irrevocable Trusts will not allow you to be Trustee due to restrictions in the tax laws. In these situations, a professional or corporate trustee may be exactly what you need: they have the experience, time and resources to manage your trust and help you meet your investment goals.

What You Need to Know

Professional or corporate trustees will charge a fee to manage your trust, but generally the fee is quite reasonable, especially when you consider their experience, the services provided, and the investment returns that a professional Trustee can deliver.

Actions to Consider

  • Honestly evaluate if you are the best choice to be your own Trustee. Someone else may truly do a better job than you, especially in investing your assets.
  • Name someone to be co-Trustee with you now. This would eliminate the time a successor would need to become knowledgeable about your trust, your assets, and the needs and personalities of your beneficiaries. It would also let you evaluate if the co-Trustee is the right choice to manage the Trust in your absence.
  • Evaluate your Trustee candidates carefully and realistically.
  • If you are considering a Professional or Corporate Trustee, talk to several. Compare their services, investment returns, and fees.  I have a couple I highly recommend, which will give you a nice starting place.

I can help you select, educate, and advise your Successor Trustees so they will have support and know what to do next to carry out your wishes. Give me a call at 858-432-3923 and I will be happy to serve you.

 

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Should your child’s guardian and trustee be the same person?

Should your child’s guardian and trustee be the same person?

If you have overheard any discussion about estate planning, you have likely heard the words “guardian” or “trustee” tossed around in the conversation. When it comes to estate planning, who will be ultimately in charge of your minor child is an important decision that requires consideration of many factors. Although there is no substitute for you as a parent, a guardian is essentially someone who steps in as a parent, assuming the parental role and raising the child through adulthood. A trustee, on the other hand, is in charge of managing the financial legacy that has been left behind for the minor. As a parent, you need to take into account the characteristics needed for each role.

Who Makes a Good Guardian?

When choosing a guardian, the top factor to consider is who is the best person that will love and raise your child in a manner that you would. This would include religious beliefs, parenting style, interest in extracurricular activities, energy level, and whether or not he or she has children already. Keep in mind that a guardian will provide day-to-day love, care, and support for your child. While the guardian you choose may be great with your children, he or she may not be great with money. For this reason, it may make sense to place the financial management of your minor child’s funds in the hands of someone else.

Who Makes a Good Trustee?

Not surprisingly, when choosing a trustee the most important characteristic is that he or she is great with finances. Specifically, the trustee must be able to manage the funds in accordance with your intent and instructions that are left in your trust. Consider whether he or she will honor your wishes. Likewise, should you choose to grant your successor trustee discretion in making financial decisions regarding the management of funds left behind you should ensure the individual’s decisions will be aligned with your intent. In short, you want to choose a successor trustee who will act in your minor child’s best interest within the limits you have set forth in your estate plan documents. If you choose two different people for the role of guardian and trustee, make sure to consider how the two get along as they will likely have to work together throughout your minor’s childhood and possibly into adulthood.

Seek Help to Make Your Decision

While estate planning can be daunting, it does not have to be. Contact me, a knowledgeable estate planning attorney, to help guide you through this process. I can explain your options and advise you on the best plan that will follow your wishes while at the same time meeting your family’s needs.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever,  Estate Planning and Business Planning Attorney. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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The Ins and Outs of Collecting Life Insurance Policy Proceeds

The Ins and Outs of Collecting Life Insurance Policy Proceeds

Unlike many estate assets, if you’re looking to collect the proceeds of a life insurance policy, the process is fairly simple provided you’re named as the beneficiary. That said, following a loved one’s death, the whole world can feel like it’s falling apart, and it’s helpful to know exactly what steps need to be taken to access the insurance funds as quickly and easily as possible during this trying time.

Additionally, if you have been dependent on the person who died for regular financial support and/or are responsible for paying funeral expenses, the need to access insurance proceeds can sometimes be downright urgent.

Here, I’ve outlined the typical procedure for claiming and collecting life insurance proceeds, along with discussing how beneficiaries can deal with common hiccups in the process. However, because all life insurance policies are different and some involve more complexities than others, it’s always a good idea to consult with a qualified Estate Planning attorney, such as myself, if you need extra help or guidance.

Filing a Claim
To start the life insurance claims process, you first need to identify who the beneficiary of the life insurance policy is—are you the beneficiary, or is a trust set up to handle the claim for you?

I often recommend that life insurance proceeds be paid to a trust, not outright to a beneficiary. This way, the life insurance proceeds can be used by the beneficiary, but the funds are protected from lawsuits and/or creditors that the beneficiary may be involved with—even a future divorce.

In the event that a trust is the beneficiary, contact me so that I can create a certificate of trust that you (or the trustee, if the trustee is someone other than you) can send to the life insurance company, along with a death certificate when one is available.

In any case, you (or the trustee) will notify the insurance company of the policyholder’s death, either by contacting a local agent or by following the instructions on the company’s website. If the policy was provided through an employer, you may need to contact their workplace first, and someone there will put you in touch with the appropriate representative.

Many insurance companies allow you to report the death over the phone or by sending in a simple form and not require the actual death certificate at this stage. Depending on the cause of death, it can sometimes take weeks for the death certificate to be available, so this simplified reporting speeds up the process.

From there, the insurance company typically sends the beneficiary (or the trustee of the trust named as beneficiary) more in-depth forms to fill out, along with further instructions about how to proceed. Some of the information you’re likely to be asked to provide during the claims process include the deceased’s date of birth, date and place of death, their Social Security number, marital status, address, as well as other personal data.

Your state’s vital records office creates the death certificate, and it will either send the certificate directly to you or route it through your funeral/mortuary provider. Once you’ve received a certified copy of the death certificate, you’ll send it to the insurance company, along with the other completed forms requested.

Multiple beneficiaries
If more than one adult beneficiary was named, each person should provide his or her own signed and notarized claim form. If any of the primary beneficiaries died before the policyholder, an alternate/contingent beneficiary can claim the proceeds, but he or she will need to send in the death certificates of both the policyholder and the primary beneficiary.

Minors
While policyholders are free to name anyone as a beneficiary, when minor children are named, it creates serious complications, as most insurance companies will not allow a minor child to receive life insurance benefits directly until they reach the age of majority. And the age of majority varies between states—with some it’s 18, and others it’s 21.

If a child is named as a beneficiary and has yet to reach the age of majority, the claim proceeds will be paid to the child’s legal guardian, who will be responsible for managing those funds until the child comes of age. Given this, in the event a minor is named you’ll need to go to court to be appointed as legal guardian, even if you’re the child’s parent. This is why I recommend never naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, even as a backup to the primary beneficiary.

Rather than naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, it’s often better to set up a trust to receive the proceeds. By doing that, the proceeds would be paid into the trust, and whomever is named as trustee will follow the steps above to collect the insurance benefits, put them in the trust, and manage the funds for the child’s benefit.  Whatever you decide, you should consult with me, a qualified Estate Planning Attorney to determine the best options for passing along your life insurance benefits and other assets to minor children.

Insurance claim payment
Provided you fill out the forms properly and include a certified copy of the death certificate, insurance companies typically pay out life insurance claims quickly. In fact, some claims are paid within one-to-two weeks of the start of the process, and rarely do claims take more than 60 days to be paid. Most insurance companies will offer you the option to collect the proceeds via a mailed check or transfer the funds electronically directly to your account.

Sometimes an insurance company will request you to send in a completed W-9 form (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification) from the IRS in order to process a claim. Most of the time, a W-9 is requested only if there is some question or issue with the records, such as having an address provided in a claim form that doesn’t match the one on file.

A W-9 is simply a way for the insurance company to verify information to prevent fraudulent activity. To this end, don’t be alarmed if you’re asked for a W-9. It’s a common verification practice, and it doesn’t automatically mean the company suspects you of fraud or plans to deny your claim.

While collecting life insurance proceeds is a fairly simple process, it’s always a good idea to consult with me as a qualified Estate Planning Attorney if you have any questions or need help to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible during the often-chaotic period following a loved one’s death.


This article is a service of Tara Cheever,  Estate Planning and Business Planning Attorney. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 2

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 2

Last week, I shared the first part of this series explaining the powers and duties that come with serving as trustee. Here in part two, I discuss the rest of a trustee’s core responsibilities. 

Being asked to serve as trustee can be a huge honor—but it’s also a major responsibility. Indeed, the job entails a wide array of complex duties, and trustees are both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability.

To this end, you should thoroughly understand exactly what your role as trustee requires before agreeing to accept the position. Last week, I highlighted three of a trustee’s primary functions, and here I continue with that list, starting with one of the most labor-intensive of all duties—managing and accounting for a trust’s assets.

Manage and account for trust assets

Before a trustee can sell, invest, or make distributions to beneficiaries, he or she must take control of, inventory, and value all trust assets. Ideally, this happens as soon as possible after the death of the grantor in the privacy of a lawyer’s office. As long as assets are titled in the name of the trust, there’s no need for court involvement—unless a beneficiary or creditor forces it with a claim against the trust.

In the best case, the person who created the trust and was the original trustee—usually the grantor—will have maintained an up-to-date inventory of all trust assets. And if the estate is extensive, gathering those assets can be a major undertaking, so contact me as your Personal Family Lawyer® to help review the trust and determine the best course of action.

The value of some assets, like financial accounts, securities, and insurance, will be easy to determine. But with other property—real estate, vehicles, businesses, artwork, furniture, and jewelry—a trustee may need to hire a professional appraiser to determine those values. With the assets secured and valued, the trustee must then identify and pay the grantor’s creditors and other debts.

Be careful about ensuring regularly scheduled payments, such as mortgages, property taxes, and insurance, are promptly paid, or trustees risk personal liability for late payments and/or other penalties. Trustees are also required to prepare and file the grantor’s income and estate tax returns. This includes the final income tax return for the year of the decedent’s death and any prior years’ returns on extension, along with filing an annual return during each subsequent year the trust remains open.

For high-value estates, trustees may have to file a federal estate tax return or possibly a state estate tax return. However, Trump’s new tax law of 2017 (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) doubled the estate tax exemption to $11.2 million, so very few estates will be impacted. But keep in mind, this new exemption is only valid through 2025, when it will return to $5.6 million.

During this entire process, it’s vital that trustees keep strict accounting of every transaction (bills paid and income received) made using the trust’s assets, no matter how small. In fact, if a trustee fails to fully pay the trust’s debts, taxes, and expenses before distributing assets to beneficiaries, he or she can be held personally liable if there are insufficient assets to pay for outstanding estate expenses.

Given this, it’s crucial to work with a Personal Family Lawyer® and a qualified accountant to properly account for and pay all trust-related expenses and debts as well as ensure all tax returns are filed on behalf of the trust.

Personally administer the trust

While trustees are nearly always permitted to hire outside advisers like lawyers, accountants, and even professional trust administration services, trustees must personally communicate with those advisors and be the one to make all final decisions on trust matters. After all, the grantor chose you as trustee because they value your judgment.

So even though trustees can delegate much of the underlying legwork, they’re still required to serve as the lead decision maker. What’s more, trustees are ultimately responsible if any mistakes are made. In the end, a trustee’s full range of powers, duties, and discretion will depend on the terms of the trust, so always refer to the trust for specific instructions when delegating tasks and/or making tough decisions. And if you need help understanding what the trust says, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for support.

Clear communication with beneficiaries

To keep them informed and updated as to the status of the trust, trustees are required to provide beneficiaries with regular information and reports related to trust matters. Typically, trustees provide such information on an annual basis, but again, the level of communication depends on the trust’s terms.

In general, trustees should provide annual status reports with complete and accurate accounting of the trust’s assets. Moreover, trustees must permit beneficiaries to personally inspect trust property, accounts, and any related documents if requested. Additionally, trustees must provide an annual tax return statement (Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who’s taxed on income earned by the trust.

Entitled to reasonable fees for services rendered

Given such extensive duties and responsibilities, trustees are entitled to receive reasonable fees for their services. Oftentimes, family members and close friends named as trustee choose not to accept any payment beyond what’s required to cover trust expenses, but this all depends on the trustee’s particular situation and relationship with the grantor and/or beneficiaries.

What’s more, determining what’s “reasonable,” can itself be challenging. Entities like accounting firms, lawyers, banks, and trust administration companies typically charge a percentage of the funds under their management or a set fee for their time. In the end, what’s reasonable is based on the amount of work involved, the level of funds in the trust, the trust’s other expenses, and whether or not the trustee was chosen for their professional experience. Consult with me if you need guidance about what would be considered reasonable in your specific circumstance.

Since the trustee’s duties are comprehensive, complex, and foreign to most people, if you’ve been asked to serve as trustee, it’s critical you have a professional advisor who can give you a clear and accurate assessment of what’s required of you before you accept the position. And if you do choose to serve as trustee, it’s even more important that you have someone who can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process.

In either case, you can rely on me as your Personal Family Lawyer® to offer the most accurate advice, guidance, and assistance with all trustee duties and functions. I can ensure that you’ll effectively fulfill all of the grantor’s final wishes—and do so in the most efficient and risk-free manner possible. Contact me today at (858) 432-3923 to learn more.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 1

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 1

If a friend or family member has asked you to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death, you should feel honored—this means they consider you among the most honest, reliable, and responsible people they know.

However, being a trustee is not only a great honor, it’s also a major responsibility. The job can entail a wide array of complex duties, and you’re both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability. Given this, agreeing to serve as trustee is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and you should thoroughly understand exactly what the role requires before giving your answer.

Of course, a trustee’s responsibility can vary enormously depending on the size of the estate, the type of trust involved, and the trust’s specific terms and instructions. But every trust comes with a few core requirements, and here I’ll highlight some of the key responsibilities.

That said, one of the first things to note about serving as trustee is that the job does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, trustees are not just allowed to seek outside assistance from professionals in these fields, they’re highly encouraged to, and funding to pay for such services will be set aside for this in the trust.

To this end, don’t let the complicated nature of a trustee’s role scare you off. Indeed, there are numerous professionals and entities that specialize in trust administration, and people with no experience with these tasks successfully handle the role all of the time. And besides, depending on who nominated you, declining to serve may not be a realistic or practical option.

Adhere to the trust’s terms
Every trust is unique, and a trustee’s obligations and powers depend largely on what the trust creator, or grantor, allows for, so you should first carefully review the trust’s terms. The trust document outlines all the specific duties you’ll be required to fulfill as well as the appropriate timelines and discretion you’ll have for fulfilling these tasks.

Depending on the size of the estate and the types of assets held by the trust, your responsibilities as trustee can vary greatly. Some trusts are relatively straightforward, with few assets and beneficiaries, so the entire job can be completed within a few weeks or months. Others, especially those containing numerous assets and minor-aged beneficiaries, can take decades to completely fulfill. To ensure you understand exactly what a particular trust’s terms require of you as trustee, consult with me as a qualified estate planning attorney.

Act in the best interests of the beneficiaries
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the named beneficiaries at all times, and they must not use the position for personal gain. Moreover, they cannot commingle their own funds and assets with those of the trust, nor may they profit from the position beyond the fees set aside to pay for the trusteeship.

If the trust involves multiple beneficiaries, the trustee must balance any competing interests between the various beneficiaries in an impartial and objective manner for the benefit of them all. In some cases, grantors try to prevent conflicts between beneficiaries by including very specific instructions about how and when assets should be distributed, and if so, you must follow these directions exactly as spelled out.

However, some trusts leave asset distribution decisions up to the trustee’s discretion. If so, when deciding how to make distributions, the trustee must carefully evaluate each beneficiary’s current needs, future needs, other sources of income, as well as the potential impact the distribution might have on the other beneficiaries. Such duties should be taken very seriously, as beneficiaries can take legal action against trustees if they can prove he or she violated their fiduciary duties and/or mismanaged the trust.

Invest trust assets prudently
Many trusts contain interest-bearing securities and other investment vehicles. If so, the trustee is responsible not only for protecting and managing these assets, they’re also obligated to make them productive—which typically means selling and/or investing assets to generate income.

In doing so, the trustee must exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when investing trust assets, otherwise known as the “prudent investor” rule. The trustee should always consider the specific purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other aspects of the trust when meeting this standard.

Trustees must invest prudently and diversify investments appropriately to ensure they’re in the best interests of all beneficiaries. Given this, trustees are forbidden from investing trust assets in overly speculative or high-risk stocks and/or other investment vehicles. Unless specifically spelled out in the trust terms, it will be up to the trustee’s discretion to determine the investment strategies that are best suited for the trust’s goals and beneficiaries. If so, you should hire a financial advisor familiar with trusts to help guide you.

Given the unpredictable nature of the economy, it’s important to point out that poor performance of trust investments alone isn’t enough to prove a trustee breached his or her duties to invest prudently. Provided the trustee can show the underlying investment strategies were sound and reasonable, the mere fact that the investments lost money doesn’t make them legally liable.

Next week, I’ll continue with part two in this series explaining the scope of powers and duties that come with serving as trustee. 

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Estate Planning and Business Attorney. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Retirement Planning for Business Owners

Retirement Planning for Business Owners

For many employees, saving for retirement is usually a matter of simply participating in their employer’s 401(k) plan and perhaps opening an IRA for some extra savings.

But, when you’re the owner of a business, planning for retirement requires proactivity and strategy. It’s not just the dizzying array of choices for retirement accounts, there’s also planning for the business itself. Who will run the business after your retirement? Additionally, your estate plan must integrate into your retirement and business transition strategy.

Owners of businesses (like employees and everyone else) want to make sure they will have enough money in retirement. Business owners recognize the value of their businesses, so they are often tempted to reinvest everything into the enterprise, thinking that will be their “retirement plan.” However, this might be a mistake.

Retirement Accounts for Business Owners

Rather than placing all your eggs in one basket, it makes sense to have some “backup” strategies in place. There are many retirement account options open to business owners. Although the number of options can make things confusing, a tax and financial professional can often quickly make a recommendation for you.

For example, you may consider opening a 401(k), SEP-IRA, SIMPLE, or pension plan. This can reduce your income taxes now, while simultaneously placing some of your wealth outside your business. From a financial perspective, these account are tax-deferred, so the investment growth avoids taxation until you retire, which greatly boosts returns. The “best” plan really depends on how much income your business earns, how stable your earnings are, how many employees you have, and how generous you want to be with those employees. You must consider how generous you’ll be with employees because the law requires most tax-deferred plans to be “fair” to all employees. For example, you can’t open a pension or 401(k) for yourself only and exclude all of your full-time employees. When making this decision, consider that many employees value being able to save for their retirement and your generosity may be repaid with harder work and loyalty from the employees.

Depending on how many employees you have, you may even consider “self-directed” investment options, which can allow you to invest some or all of your retirement funds into “alternative” investments, such as precious metals, private lending arrangements, real estate, other closely held businesses, etc. These self-directed accounts are not for everyone, but for the right person, they open up a wide world of investment opportunities. The tax rules surrounding self-directed tax-deferred accounts are very complex and penalties can be incredibly high. So, if you choose to do self-directed investments, always work with a qualified tax advisor.

Outside of your business, you can likely contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA. This can allow you to add more money to your retirement basket, especially if you’ve maximized your 401(k), SEP, or SIMPLE plan. Like the other tax-deferred accounts, self-directed IRAs are also an option, opening up a broad world of investment options.

As a business owner, you likely have a great deal of control over your health insurance decisions. If you’re relatively young and healthy or otherwise an infrequent user of health care services, consider using a high deductible health plan (HDHP) and a health savings account (HSA) to add additional money to your savings. These plans let you set aside money in the HSA which can be invested in a manner similar to IRAs. At any time after you setup the account, you can withdraw your contributions and earnings, tax-free, to pay for qualified medical expenses. And, after you turn 65, the money can be used for whatever purpose you want, although income tax will need to be paid on the distributions.

Selling or Transferring the Business

Many business owners dream of a financially lucrative “exit” when a business is sold, taken public, or otherwise transferred at a significant profit for the owner. This does not happen by accident – a business owner must first create and sustain a profitable enterprise that can be sold. Then, legal and tax strategies must be coordinated to minimize the burdensome hit of taxes and avoid the common legal risks that can happen when businesses are sold. When a business is sold, the net proceeds can form a significant component of the owner’s retirement. When supplemented by one or more of the retirement accounts discussed above, this can be a great outcome for a business owner.

On the other hand, other businesses are “family” businesses where children or grandchildren will one day become owners. Like their counterparts who will sell their businesses, these business owners must also focus on creating and sustaining a profitable enterprise, but the source of retirement money is a little less clear. In these cases, clearly thinking through the transition plan to the next generation is essential. Although the business can be given to the next generation through a trust or outright, there are also transition options to allow for children, grandchildren, or even employees to gradually buy-out the owner, if the owner needs or wants to obtain a portion of the retirement nest egg from the business.

The Importance of Estate Planning

Regardless of which retirement accounts (401(k), SEP, SIMPLE, IRAs, HSAs) you select, it is wise to integrate them into your estate planning. You’ve probably already considered who you want to take over your business after you retire (perhaps a son or daughter or a sale to a third party). For your retirement accounts, an IRA trust is a special trust designed to maximize the financial benefit, minimize the income tax burden, and provide robust asset protection for your family. These trusts integrate with the rest of your comprehensive estate plan to fully protect your family, provide privacy, all while minimizing taxes and costs.

Leverage the Team Approach

Let me work with you, your business advisors or consultants, your tax advisor, and your financial advisor to develop a comprehensive retirement, business transition, and estate planning strategy. When we work collaboratively, we can focus on setting aside assets for retirement, saving as much tax possible, while freeing you to do what you do best – build your business!

Give me a call today at (858) 432-3923 so I can help you craft a retirement, business transition, and estate planning strategy.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Declare your Independence from Court Interference!

Declare your Independence from Court Interference!

While our great nation celebrated its independence yesterday on July 4th, you can rest assured that you too can declare independence for your family — from court interference. Life can be unpredictable. Whether it is a financial issue, the birth or adoption of a child, sickness or incapacity, it is important to be prepared with proper estate planning. In fact, failure to put together a comprehensive estate plan can leave you and your loved ones at the mercy of the court when it comes to distributing assets or caring for a minor or sick family member.

Estate Planning Basics

Simply put, estate planning ensures that your family knows what you have at incapacity and at death and that assets are managed properly during that time.  Estate planning is a great method not only to plan your family’s financial security, but to use tools to keep your family’s personal business outside of the courtroom.

Avoiding Probate

When someone passes away without a Will it is referred to as being intestate. A person who dies intestate will have his or her assets distributed according to local intestacy rules. Probate is the legal mechanism by which your assets are distributed upon your death. The process of probate takes a lot of time, costs money, and can be a hassle and burden for the family you left behind. One important estate planning tool that will help avoid a drawn out legal process includes a fully-funded trust with up-to-date beneficiary designations. By having a fully funded trust and/or up-to-date beneficiary designations when you die, there are no assets in your estate, and therefore no need for probate.

Death is not the only time a court may become involved in your and your family’s personal lives. The court may also intervene in the event you become incapacitated. The court may appoint a guardian or conservator to handle your personal and financial matters, essentially pushing out your loved ones and stripping their ability to help and make important decisions on your behalf. There are several estate planning tools that can help you determine who you want to be in charge should you become incapacitated. These include using a Durable Power of attorney, a fully-funded Living Trust, as well as a healthcare directive to appoint and give instructions to those you trust to make these difficult decisions for you when you need it most.

Protecting Your Loved Ones

Another important benefit of a solid estate plan is protecting those who are most precious to you — your minor children. It is important to understand that simply naming guardians in your Will for any minor children you may have is not enough in and of itself, which is why I offer a Kids Protection Plan™ to ensure your family knows what to do and that your children are not placed in the hands of strangers (i.e. Child Protective Services) or to someone who you may not want raising your children.  While a Will does ensure your children will be properly cared for in the long-term, often there are significant lapses of time from when the need arises to care for your children and when your wishes are actually carried out, which may result in your children being in the care of someone else. Making sure your estate plan accounts for this gap is vital in preventing the state from taking over and allowing someone you do not want to raise your children from having a chance to take control of their lives and inheritance.

Declare Your Family’s Independence

There are many moving parts to a concise estate plan that must be considered in order to properly protect yourself and your loved ones. I, your Personal Family Lawyer®, can explain your options under applicable law and craft a plan that best suits your family’s needs. There is no need to wait and leave your family’s future to chance. Contact me today at (858) 432-3923 so we can get you on the road to independence.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Create a Special Needs Trust to Protect the Financial Future of Your Child with Special Needs

Create a Special Needs Trust to Protect the Financial Future of Your Child with Special Needs

It always surprises me to hear parents who have a child with special needs tell me that they were not aware of what they needed to do to ensure the future well-being and care of their child is properly handled. Or sometimes, they tell me they didn’t know they needed to do anything at all.

If that’s you, and you have a child with special needs at home, this article is for you. And if you have friends or family who have a child with special needs, please share this article with them.

Every parent who has a child with special needs must understand what’s needed to provide for the emotional, physical, and financial needs of their child, if and when something happens to them.

Naming guardians
Of course, the first and most critical step in ensuring the well-being and care of your child with special needs’ future is to name both short and long-term legal guardians to take custody of and care of your child, in the event of your death or incapacity. And as you well know, this responsibility doesn’t end at age 18, if your child will not grow into an adult who can independently care for him or herself.

While I understand this lifetime responsibility probably feels overwhelming, I’ve been told repeatedly by parents that naming legal guardians in writing and knowing their child will be cared for in the way they want, by the people they want, creates immense relief.

I frequently build in plans where the named guardians are properly instructed—and even incentivized—to give your child the same care you provide. For example, I’ve created plans whereby the named guardian is compensated for taking the child to dinner and the movies weekly, or doing something similar if this is something the child used to enjoy doing with his or her parents.

But without written instructions (and perhaps compensation) built into the plan, fun activities like this can often go by the wayside when you’re no longer available. For guidance on selecting legal guardians and properly instructing them to provide your child with special needs the same level of care and attention you do, consult with me as your Personal Family Lawyer®.

Beyond naming a guardian, you’ll also need to provide financial resources to allow your child to live out his or her life in the manner you desire. This is where things can get tricky for children with special needs. In fact, it may seem like a “Catch-22” situation. You want to leave your child enough money to afford the support they need to live a comfortable life. Yet, if you leave money directly to a person with special needs, you risk disqualifying him or her for government benefits.

Special Needs Trusts
Fortunately, the government allows assets to be held in what’s known as a “special needs trust” to provide supplemental financial resources for a physically, mentally, or developmentally disabled child without affecting his or her eligibility for public healthcare and income assistance benefits.

However, the rules for such trusts are complicated and can vary greatly between different states, so you should work with me as your Personal Family Lawyer® in order to create a comprehensive special needs trust that’s properly structured and appropriate for your child’s specific situation.

Setting up the trust
Funds from a special needs trust cannot be distributed directly to a beneficiary and must be disbursed to a third-party who’s responsible for administering the trust. Given this, when you initially set up the trust, you’ll likely be both the “grantor” (trust creator) and “trustee” (the person responsible for managing the trust), and your child with special needs is the trust’s “beneficiary.”

You’ll then name the person you want responsible for administering the trust’s funds once you’re no longer able to as “successor trustee.” To avoid conflicts of interest, overburdening the named guardian with too much responsibility, and provide checks and balances, it can sometimes be best to name someone other than your child’s guardian as trustee.

As the parent, you serve as the trustee until you die or become incapacitated, at which time the successor trustee takes over. Each person who serves as trustee is legally required to follow the trust’s terms and use its funds and property for the benefit of the individual with special needs.

And in all cases, you should name a series of successor trustees, which can even be a trust company or other professional fiduciary, as backups to your primary named trustee.

Placing money and property into a special needs trust
There are two ways to set up a special needs trust. In one situation, I build it into your revocable living trust, and it will arise, or spring up, upon your death. From there, assets that are held in your revocable living trust will be used to fund your child’s special needs trust.

In other cases, I can set up a special needs trust that acts as a vehicle for receiving and holding assets for your child now. This makes sense if you have parents or other relatives who want to give your child with special needs gifts sooner rather than later.

I’ll be dedicating a future article on the available estate planning options you can use to pass money to a special needs trust. Until then, consult with me as your Personal Family Lawyer® if you need guidance on the planning vehicles that are best suited for this purpose.

The trustee’s responsibilities
Once the trust is funded, it’s the trustee’s job to use its funds to support the beneficiary without jeopardizing eligibility for government benefits. To handle this properly, the trustee must have a thorough understanding of how eligibility for such benefits works and stay current with the law. The trustee is also required to pay the beneficiary’s taxes, keep detailed records, invest trust property, and stay current with the beneficiary’s needs.

Given this huge responsibility, it’s often best that you name a legal or financial professional who’s familiar with the complexities of the law as trustee or co-trustee, so they can properly handle the duties and not jeopardize eligibility.

If you need help creating a special needs trust for your child, contact me as your Personal Family Lawyer ®. I can develop a sustainable living plan for your child with special needs that will provide her or him with the financial means they need to live a full life, while preserving their access to government benefits. Contact me today to get started.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today at (858) 432-3923 to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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I Don’t Have Kids, So Why Do I Need Estate Planning? Part 2

I Don’t Have Kids, So Why Do I Need Estate Planning? Part 2

Last week, I shared the first part of my series on the importance of estate planning for those without children. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here. Here in part two, I discuss the other risks involved for those who forego estate planning.

Someone will have power over your health care

Estate planning isn’t just about passing on your assets when you die. In fact, some of the most critical parts of planning have nothing to do with your money at all, but are aimed at protecting you while you’re still very much alive.

Advance planning allows you to name the person you want to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to make decisions yourself.

For example, if you’re temporarily unconscious following a car accident and unable to give doctors permission to perform a potentially risky medical treatment, it’s not always clear who’ll be asked to make that decision for you.

If you have a romantic partner but aren’t married and haven’t granted them medical power of attorney, the court will likely have a family member, not your partner, make that decision. Depending on your family, that person may make decisions contrary to what you or your partner would want.

Indeed, if you don’t want your estranged brother to inherit your property, you probably don’t want him to have the power to make life-and-death decisions about your medical care, either. But that’s exactly what could happen if you don’t proactively plan.

Even worse, your family members who have priority to make decisions for you could keep your dearest friends away from your bedside in the event of your hospitalization or incapacity. Or family members who don’t share your values about the types of food you eat, or the types of medical care you receive, could be the one’s making decisions about how you’ll be cared for.

Even if, or maybe especially if, you don’t have kids, you need to do estate planning in order to name health care decisions-makers for yourself and provide instructions on how you want decisions made.

Someone will get power over your finances

As with health-care decisions, if you become incapacitated and haven’t legally named someone to handle your finances while you’re unable to do so, the court will pick someone for you. The way to avoid this is by naming someone you trust to hold power of attorney for you in the event of your incapacity.

A Durable Power of Attorney is an estate planning tool that gives the person you choose authority to manage your financial matters if you’re incapacitated. This agent will have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting your Social Security benefits, selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts.

Because these powers are so broad, it’s critical that you only give this power to someone you absolutely trust, and ideally, with the guidance of a lawyer who can watch out for your best interests.

The fact that a Durable Power of Attorney is granted as soon as you’re incapacitated means your Agent can begin handling your finances immediately, without waiting for a judge’s decision, simply by presenting a legal document and appropriate proof of your incapacity to a financial account holder. Since courts are notoriously slow, this quick access can be immensely beneficial to ensure your bills get paid on time and you have the funds available when you need them.

Without signed powers of attroney, your family and friends will have to go to court to get access to your finances, which not only takes time, but it could lead to mismanagement and even the loss of your assets should the court grant this authority to the wrong person.

Furthermore, the person you name doesn’t have to be a lawyer or financial professional—it can be anybody you choose, including both family and friends. The most important aspect of your choice is selecting someone who’s imminently trustworthy, since they will have nearly complete control over your estate. Besides, with me as your Personal Family Lawyer®, your agent will have access to us as your trusted counsel should they need guidance or help.

Given all of these potential risks, it would be foolhardy for those without children to ignore or put off these basic estate-planning strategies. Identifying the right planning tools is easy to do, and begins with a Family Wealth Planning Session, where I can consider everything you own and everyone you love, and guide you to make informed, educated, empowered choices for yourself and your loved ones.

It will likely take just a few hours of your time to be certain that both your assets, healthcare, and relationships will be managed in the most effective and affordable manner possible in the event of your death or incapacity.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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I Don’t Have Kids, So Why Do I Need Estate Planning? Part 1

I Don’t Have Kids, So Why Do I Need Estate Planning? Part 1

It’s a common misconception to think that if you don’t have children, you don’t need to worry about estate planning. But the fact is, it can be even MORE important to do estate planning if you have no children.

Some of the common thoughts behind this mistaken belief may take one of these forms:

“If I die, everything will pass to my spouse anyway, so why bother?”

“I’m single with little wealth, so who cares who gets my few meager assets?”

“Estate planning is an expensive hassle and it doesn’t even benefit me because I’ll be dead, so I’m better off letting a judge handle things.”

This kind of thinking ignores several basic facts about both estate planning and life in general. Regardless of your marital status, if you don’t have children, you face potential estate-planning complications which those with children do not. And this is true whether you’re wealthy or have very limited assets.

Without proper estate planning, you’re not only jeopardizing your personal property, but you’re putting your life at risk, too. And that’s not even mentioning the potential conflict and expense you’re leaving for your surviving family and friends to deal with.

So if you’re childless, consider these three inconvenient truths before you decide to forego estate planning.

Someone will get your stuff
Whether you’re rich, poor, or somewhere in between, in the event of your death everything you own will be passed on to someone. Without a will or trust, your assets will go through probate, where a judge and state law will decide who gets everything you own. In the event no family steps forward, your assets will become property of your state government.

Why give the state everything you worked your life to build? And even if you have little financial wealth, you undoubtedly own a few sentimental items, including pets, that you’d like to pass to a close friend or favorite charity.

However, it’s rare for someone to die without any family members stepping forward. It’s far more likely that some relative you haven’t spoken with in years will come out of the woodwork to stake a claim. Without a will or trust, state laws establish which family member has the priority inheritance. If you’re unmarried with no children, this hierarchy typically puts parents first, then siblings, then more distant relatives like nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

Depending on your family, this could have a potentially dangerous outcome. For instance, what if your closest living relative is your estranged brother with serious addiction issues? Or what if your assets are passed on to a niece who’s still a child and likely to squander the inheritance?

And if your estate does contain significant wealth and assets, this could lead to a costly and contentious court battle, with all of your relatives hiring expensive lawyers to fight over your estate—which is exactly what’s happening with Prince’s family right now.

Finally, even if you have a spouse and your assets are passed to him or her, there’s no guarantee they’ll live much longer than you. In the event of their death without a will or a trust, everything goes to his or her family, regardless of the fact that you can’t stand your in-laws.

You really don’t want your spouse’s sister, brother, parents (or the new spouse he or she marries after you die) inheriting what you’ve worked so hard for, do you?

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the value of estate planning for those without children: how you could be leaving YOURself at risk.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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Joint Tenancy Pitfalls: The ‘Simple’ Fix that Can Leave Your Family Broke

Joint Tenancy Pitfalls: The ‘Simple’ Fix that Can Leave Your Family Broke

There are many ways to own your assets. When you die, it is only natural that you want your family to share in the bounty of your hard work. As a way to simplify the transfer process and avoid probate, you may be tempted to add a child or other relative to the deed or bank account utilizing the ownership type of joint tenancy with right of survivorship (JTwROS). However, while this type of ownership delivers a lot of potential benefits, it may also be masking some dangerous pitfalls.

Under JTwROS, when one owner dies, the other owner(s) inherit the deceased owner’s share of the property proportionately.Take note that the words “with right of survivorship” do not need to be explicitly spelled out because the survivorship right is automatic with joint tenancy, unlike other forms of ownership types, such as tenants in common.  With JTwROS, its benefits are specific: ownership is transferred automatically without entering probate.  Because the property is transferred outside of probate, it is possible to keep this inheritance out of the clutches of creditors of your estate.   On the surface, this seems like a smart way to streamline the inheritance process, sidestep creditor baggage, and bureaucratic charges. But the risks may outweigh the benefits.

You May Pay the Price

One of the main problems with JTwROS is that when you enter into this kind of agreement, you open yourself up to additional liability. When you agree to a JTwROS, you put your assets on the hook for the other owners’ creditors, ex-spouses and flights of fancy.

Another problem with JTwROS, as it relates to real estate, is that there are now multiple owners of the property. You must now get the approval of the other owners if you would like to mortgage, refinance, transfer, or sell the property. It does not matter if you are the only one who is occupying the property or paying the expenses, by adding additional people as owners, you are giving away control.

With respect to any bank accounts, once you add an additional owner, that individual, as an owner, has the right to go to the bank and withdraw whatever money is in the account. The bank is merely going to make sure that the individual is listed on the account and will freely turn over your money to him or her. If a joint owner’s creditor serves the bank with a garnishment order, they can also seize the money in the account, even if the joint owner was only added to help avoid probate.

In my years of practice, I have seen in countless situations where an adult child is added to a parent’s bank account as a joint tenant in order to “make things easier” at death.  In too many of those situations, it is discovered later that the adult child was secretly withdrawing money and frequently making purchases for his/her own benefit, even though that person was only added to the account to assist parent and avoid probate.  When the parent finally realizes the value of proper estate planning and then discovers the financial abuse, it almost always creates family conflict and difficulty because the adult child does not want to lose control of those assets and becomes a roadblock for the parent to complete their estate planning properly.

Disinheriting Loved Ones

While JTwROS can have some impacts on you, it can also disrupt your estate plans because instead of property getting handed down, it’s handed over. For example, if someone with children remarries and a new spouse is added to the deed as a joint tenant, that new spouse will inherit the property, not the kids or grandkids. Because there’s a new spouse involved, the new spouse’s family will then be the ones to inherit upon his or her death, leaving the whole ‘branch’ of the original family may be disinherited—and not always intentionally!

Questions? Give Me a Call

Although there are some advantages to a JTwROS, don’t let simplicity or speed be your only measures. Give me a call so we can discussing all of your options and tailor a solution that will best fit your needs.

As a Personal Family Lawyer®, I offer expert advice on Wills, Trusts, and numerous other estate planning vehicles. Using proprietary systems, such as my Family Wealth Inventory and Assessment™ and Family Wealth Planning Session™, I’ll carefully analyze your assets—both tangible and intangible—to help you come up with an estate planning solution that offers maximum protection for your family’s particular situation and budget. Contact me today to get started.

This article is a service of Tara Cheever, Personal Family Lawyer®. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Sign up for the Cheever Law Newsletter