What is a Role of a Probate Lawyer?

Whether you are the Executor or an heir of the probate estate, knowing the lawyer’s role is one of the first steps you should take at the beginning of the probate process. One of the biggest sources of conflict in probating the estate is understanding the role of the lawyer hired by the Executor of a probate estate. Many Executors do not understand the probate process and leave the tasks up to the lawyer. The heirs of the estate may hear only from the lawyer or may hear the Executor say, “This is what the lawyer says we have to do.” This often raises the question, does the lawyer owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs of the estate since the Executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs?

The answer to that question depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. To be clear, this question is specifically about whether a lawyer owes the heirs of a probate estate a fiduciary duty, and not whether a lawyer owes a fiduciary duty in other contexts, such as to the beneficiaries of a trust when hired by a trustee, or a ward when hired by a guardian or conservator. The answer varies depending on each different circumstance.

Also, before answering the question, it is helpful to have an idea of some common activities created by fiduciary duties in the context of probating an estate:

  • Duty to communicate: a duty to notify the beneficiaries the estate exists, identify the Executor, provide a copy of the inventory, provide copies of court filings, generally explain documents that require a beneficiary’s signature, etc. This duty to communicate is not the same thing as an attorney-client relationship, which means there is no attorney-client privilege and the attorney cannot give legal advice.
  • Duty to account: provide regular estate accountings, which includes explaining funds paid out of estate accounts for expenses.
  • Duty to treat all beneficiaries equal: distribute estate funds at the same time, if a question arises as to how something in the Will is to be interpreted the attorney cannot interpret it, the court must interpret it.

Turning back to the question, whether the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty the heirs of a probate estate depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. Only a few states require the lawyer to meet the same fiduciary duty to the estate heirs as the Executor. These states believe that since the Executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs and the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty to the Executor, the duty flows from the Executor to the lawyer.

Most states, however, take the position that the lawyer does not owe a fiduciary duty to the estate heirs. These states view the fiduciary duty owed by the Executor to the heirs as unique from the fiduciary duty owed by the lawyer to the Executor. Also, these states want to maintain the Executor’s ability to have protected communication with the attorney.

There is a small third set of states, including California, New Mexico, and Illinois, that apply a balancing test to determine who was the actual intended beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship, the Executor or the heirs? Each state has established their own test criteria, but some common questions the courts ask include: who was the intended beneficiary of the attorney’s services, the Executor or the heirs; what was the foreseeability of the harm to the heirs as a result of the malpractice; and what was the proximity of the misconduct and the damage to the heirs?

If you are the Executor hiring the attorney, ask what the law is. If you are an heir of the estate, the lawyer should give you some guidance. If the probate estate is in one of the majority states, the first letter from the attorney should start with a sentence that reads, “I have been retained by Mr. Smith, Executor of the Estate of Ms. Smith. It is important that you understand I do not represent you.”  Otherwise, call and ask.

Everyone’s goal should be for the settling of the probate estate to go smoothly. Understanding the lawyer’s role will go a long way towards achieving that goal.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your personal situation, please don’t hesitate to contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994.

Tips for Divvying Up Personal Property

We collect stuff throughout our lives. This “stuff” is known as our personal property. Some items are valuable, like jewelry, baseball cards, and works of art. Other items are sentimental, like grandma’s tea set, old Christmas ornaments, and photographs. Regardless of the value, it is important that these items be distributed the way you want when you die. Consider the following to ensure that your wishes for your personal property are honored

Ways to Divvy Up Your Items

If there is a specific item that you want a loved one to have, the easiest way to make an official record is to create a personal property memorandum. This document, which typically must be referenced in your existing will or trust to be effective, allows you to designate who will receive the specific personal property. For instance, you can leave your gold pocket watch to your nephew, Bill Smith. When creating and updating this document, it is important that state law formalities are followed to ensure the document’s validity. Also, make sure that the items you list are described with enough clarity and specificity that your personal representative or trustee will be able to easily identify them. Lastly, you want to make sure that the recipient is specifically named. It is best to refer to a specific person by the person’s given name, denoting if the person is a junior or senior, instead of just as “my granddaughter” or “my son.” Because this is a separate document, you have the flexibility to change the contents without changing your entire will or trust. However, as previously mentioned, any changes made to this document must be done in accordance with your state’s laws.

If you want to divide the entirety of your personal property equally among a group of beneficiaries, you can allocate an equal amount of play money to each beneficiary and hold an auction using this fake money where each beneficiary can bid on the items. This distribution scheme allows for each beneficiary to participate in the auction at an equal level, with the value of each item being determined by how much each beneficiary wants the particular item rather than by how wealthy each beneficiary is in real life, relative to the others.

Another option would be to gather all of the personal property in one location and allow each beneficiary to take turns picking an item. To encourage fairness, you could have the beneficiaries draw numbers to determine the order that they will pick. Once the numbers are drawn, the beneficiary who selected number one would choose an item first, then the beneficiary who selected number two would choose an item second, and so on. Then, when the beneficiary with the highest number has chosen an item, that same beneficiary would choose again, thereby beginning the next round with the items being chosen in reverse order, and continuing in that manner until all items have been chosen. This method works well if you have a collection of items to be divided or if most of the items are of similar value. Using this method allows each beneficiary to receive an equal number of items but may not guarantee that each beneficiary receives an equal amount of value.

Note: When distributing a collection, consider whether you want the collection to be divided among multiple people or given entirely to one person. Some collections may be more valuable if all of the pieces are owned by the same person, especially if the collection is complete.

Additional Considerations

Provide guidelines if someone else has discretion.

Depending upon the types of personal property you own and your beneficiaries’ needs and wants, you may be tempted to have your personal representative or trustee distribute items as the personal representative or trustee “sees fit” or “equally.” Be cautious as to how much discretion you give. Any time you give someone else discretion to make decisions on your behalf, you should provide guidelines for the individual to use when making decisions. This can help alleviate tension and fighting among the beneficiaries and between the beneficiaries and the personal representative or trustee.

Get your loved ones involved in the planning.

If you are unsure of how to distribute your personal property, ask your loved ones if there are any specific items they would like. One common approach is to give everyone sticky notes or stickers with their names on them and let them go through the home and place the notes or stickers on the items they would like. If multiple people want the same item, you can resolve the conflict and come up with a solution ahead of time instead of leaving it to someone else to resolve upon your death. If there are items that no one wants, you can consider other people that you had not thought of that might like the items. Additionally, if you know a person would like a particular item, you may consider gifting it during your lifetime so that you can witness the joy that it brings the person while you are still alive. Getting your loved ones involved will help ensure that your memory will live on through the items your loved ones receive.

Do not overlook the minor children.

Younger loved ones may also appreciate something of yours after you have passed. Depending on the nature of the item, a parent, guardian, or other adults may have to keep or manage it for the minor until the child reaches the age of majority.

We Are Here for You

Do not wait until you are gone to determine who will receive your personal property. Without your clear instructions, loved ones will be left to determine what you would have wanted. This can lead to disagreements, broken relationships, and possible litigation. We are here to help you establish and properly document a strategy to clearly communicate your wishes. We are available for in-person and virtual meetings, whichever you prefer.

The Dilemma of E-Signature for Social Security Administration

As we move into new normal, electronic signature laws during the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a more significant role than ever before. The laws outlining acceptable electronic transaction standards that have the same effect as paper and ink signatures are the state Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN).

The US Social Security Administration (SSA) is struggling to modernize its IT infrastructure to support the American people’s current and future workloads, including e-signature acceptance. There are significant and ever-increasing service requirements and data storage responsibilities. The data includes sensitive information, susceptible to hacking, on nearly every citizen in the US, whether living or deceased, including their medical and financial records. While the SSA encourages agency interaction through their various online services, the truth is the agency’s outdated and poorly integrated computer systems make modern methods of e-signature acceptance a problem.

What is an e-signature? It is quite simply a digital file or symbol that attaches to places on an electronic file or contract, guaranteeing a person’s intent to sign the file or contract. E-signing has different formats. A signer can type their name into a signature area; they can paste in a scanned version of the signer’s signature, click on the “I accept” button, or even employ cryptographic scrambling technology. The security of these e-signatures varies across the formats.

What is a digital signature? This type of signature is considered more sophisticated and secure than the e-signature counterpart. This form of signature uses digital identification to authenticate the signer, which then becomes electronically bound to the document using encryption. Programs such as DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe, and others, offer easy ways to create a digital signature securely.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and four individual plaintiffs are suing the SSA for their refusal to accept electronic signatures. The advent of COVID-19 is precluding many Americans who have compromised immune systems from applying for disability benefits because their existing condition makes them especially vulnerable. The argument is that the safest way for these at-risk individuals to apply is to fill out an online application at home with an e-signature since leaving home or interacting with paper mail presents an avoidable danger.

In the case of Timothy Cole, currently being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he is unable to submit his application for disability benefits because he plans to hire an attorney to help him navigate the complicated application process. Why would hiring an attorney preclude the SSA from accepting an application for disability benefits? Ultimately Mr. Cole is unable to submit his application online because the attorney or other authorized representative must sign a paper copy of their client’s application. So even though it is allowable for Mr. Cole to e-sign his application, his attorney may not even though the SSA maintains an online application process where e-signatures are reportedly secure, accessible, and federally approved.

The lawsuit is also seeking that the court order the SSA to permit blind people to fill out their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application online. The SSA explicitly disallows blind people from applying online for this benefit. The lawsuit further asks the court to require e-signature acceptance on paperwork when a current beneficiary is subject to a CDR or continuing disability review.

The president of the National Federation of the Blind Mark Riccobono states, “The Social Security Administration regularly interacts with hundreds of thousands of blind people and other consumers with disabilities. Yet policies like this one persist, although the SSA has both the authority and the capability to accept electronic signatures. It is both unlawful and unconscionable that this agency continues to place blind and disabled consumers at a severe disadvantage, especially during a life-threatening global pandemic. The government should innovate, not discriminate.”

Therein lies the disconnect of expected service with the SSA. While consumers are looking for innovation and ease of use, the SSA’s continued dependence on outdated technology creates a focus on the behemoth project to migrate to a relational database that can allow for hardware alternatives with greater performance and interoperability at a much lower cost. Beyond these hardware infrastructure updates, data modernization and consolidation, and application modernization must also experience updates to be user friendly. Until these updates are in place, the SSA can expect to contend with more lawsuits as e-signatures become a need rather than a want during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your particular situation, please do not hesitate to contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994.

The Dilemma of E-Signature for Social Security Administration

As we move into a new normal, electronic signature laws during the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a more significant role than ever before. The laws outlining acceptable electronic transaction standards that have the same effect as paper and ink signatures are the state Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN).

The US Social Security Administration (SSA) is struggling to modernize its IT infrastructure to support the American people’s current and future workloads, including e-signature acceptance. There are significant and ever-increasing service requirements and data storage responsibilities. The data includes sensitive information, susceptible to hacking, on nearly every citizen in the US, whether living or deceased, including their medical and financial records. While the SSA encourages agency interaction through their various online services, the truth is the agency’s outdated and poorly integrated computer systems make modern methods of e-signature acceptance a problem.

What is an e-signature? It is quite simply a digital file or symbol that attaches to places on an electronic file or contract, guaranteeing a person’s intent to sign the file or contract. E-signing has different formats. A signer can type their name into a signature area; they can paste in a scanned version of the signer’s signature, click on the “I accept” button, or even employ cryptographic scrambling technology. The security of these e-signatures varies across the formats.

What is a digital signature? This type of signature is considered more sophisticated and secure than the e-signature counterpart. This form of signature uses digital identification to authenticate the signer, which then becomes electronically bound to the document using encryption. Programs such as DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe, and others, offer easy ways to create a digital signature securely.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and four individual plaintiffs are suing the SSA for their refusal to accept electronic signatures. The advent of COVID-19 is precluding many Americans who have compromised immune systems from applying for disability benefits because their existing condition makes them especially vulnerable. The argument is that the safest way for these at-risk individuals to apply is to fill out an online application at home with an e-signature since leaving home or interacting with paper mail presents an avoidable danger.

In the case of Timothy Cole, currently being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he is unable to submit his application for disability benefits because he plans to hire an attorney to help him navigate the complicated application process. Why would hiring an attorney preclude the SSA from accepting an application for disability benefits? Ultimately Mr. Cole is unable to submit his application online because the attorney or other authorized representative must sign a paper copy of their client’s application. So even though it is allowable for Mr. Cole to e-sign his application, his attorney may not even though the SSA maintains an online application process where e-signatures are reportedly secure, accessible, and federally approved.

The lawsuit is also seeking that the court order the SSA to permit blind people to fill out their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application online. The SSA explicitly disallows blind people from applying online for this benefit. The lawsuit further asks the court to require e-signature acceptance on paperwork when a current beneficiary is subject to a CDR or continuing disability review.

The president of the National Federation of the Blind Mark Riccobono states, “The Social Security Administration regularly interacts with hundreds of thousands of blind people and other consumers with disabilities. Yet policies like this one persist, although the SSA has both the authority and the capability to accept electronic signatures. It is both unlawful and unconscionable that this agency continues to place blind and disabled consumers at a severe disadvantage, especially during a life-threatening global pandemic. The government should innovate, not discriminate.”

Therein lies the disconnect of expected service with the SSA. While consumers are looking for innovation and ease of use, the SSA’s continued dependence on outdated technology creates a focus on the behemoth project to migrate to a relational database that can allow for hardware alternatives with greater performance and interoperability at a much lower cost. Beyond these hardware infrastructure updates, data modernization and consolidation, and application modernization must also experience updates to be user friendly. Until these updates are in place, the SSA can expect to contend with more lawsuits as e-signatures become a need rather than a want during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your particular situation, please do not hesitate to contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994.

Snowbirds: What You Need to Know about Renting Out Your Property

Retreating to a warmer climate for the winter sounds like an ideal way to spend a few months. To help make this dream a reality, some individuals choose to rent out their second homes when they are not in use. But before you list your second home for rent, there are a few things you should consider.

Benefits of renting out your property

One reason to rent out your second home is to help cover the expenses of owning that second home. In addition, you will not have to fully close it up when you leave because someone may be staying there soon after. Frequent use of the property may also help deter burglars who might otherwise think the property is abandoned. Enlist a property manager to respond to any renters’ needs or check the property during periods of vacancy.

Check local zoning ordinances and deed restrictions

Some communities may prohibit renting out a property. If you are purchasing a second home or have already purchased one, it is important to review your deed and contact the appropriate authorities or homeowner’s association to make sure that you are allowed to rent out your property. If not, you could end up angering your neighbors and becoming involved in a costly lawsuit.

Make sure you are insured

Before you open your second home to renters, check your homeowner’s insurance policy to see if it covers rental of the property. You may have to purchase a new policy or add a rider to your existing policy to provide sufficient insurance coverage, but the additional expense will be well worth the investment. The insurance will act as your first line of payment if a renter is injured on your property or the property sustains damage while being rented

Determine liability exposure

Because many different renters may stay at your second home, there is an increased risk of lawsuits arising in connection with this type of use. Transferring ownership to a limited liability company (LLC) can be a worthwhile option for creating greater protection from a potential lawsuit. If a renter gets injured on the property, sues the LLC that owns it, and obtains a judgment that exceeds any property insurance limits you have, the renter can only go after the assets owned by the LLC to satisfy any claims, not your personal assets or those of any other owners of the LLC.

However, in some states, a single-member LLC (an LLC in which you are the only member) does not provide enhanced protection from your personal creditors. The reason is that your creditors should be able to seek relief through your LLC to satisfy their claims because there are no other members that will be negatively impacted by the seizure of money and property owned by the LLC.

Before transferring your second home to an LLC, it is important to speak with the holder of any mortgage on the property. In many cases, the transfer of a mortgaged second home to an LLC can cause the due-on-sale clause to be triggered, requiring repayment of the loan in full. Unless you are financially prepared to pay off the mortgage, this may be a substantial and unwelcome financial hardship.

Consider the tax implications of renting out your second home

According to the Internal Revenue Service, if you rent your second home for fifteen days or more a year, the rental income must be reported. In most cases, you will be able to deduct the rental expenses that you have incurred. Because you are using the second home for both rental and personal purposes, you will have to divide your expenses between the rental use and the personal use based on the number of days used for each purpose. Work closely with your tax advisor or preparer to ensure that you accurately report your rental income and expenses and take the appropriate deductions on the right forms. Your tax preparer or advisor can also provide you with tips on proper recordkeeping

Get your second home ready for occupants

Before your first renter arrives, it is important to go through and remove anything personal that you do not want used, broken, or taken. This may make the space feel a little sterile, but the last thing you want is for a family heirloom to be stolen. You will also want to hire a cleaning crew to come in before and after each group. Not only will this keep the furnishings in good condition, but it may also encourage people to rent with you again. If possible, take pictures prior to new renters arriving in case damage occurs. Doing so will provide proof of the property’s condition before they arrive to compare with the condition after they leave.

We are here to help

While owning a second home can be expensive, it can offer a lifetime of memories for you and your loved ones. We are here to assist you to make sure your second home is properly included in your estate plan and protected for years to come. Give us a call today so we can discuss ways to maximize and protect your second home. We are available for in-person and virtual meetings.

Understanding Life Insurance

The current events of our world have made many of us think about our mortality and how to make sure our loved ones are taken care of especially if we die unexpectedly. Life insurance can be an affordable way to provide for our children, a spouse, a sibling, aging parents, and other loved ones. Life insurance can provide heirs numerous benefits: extra income to help pay ongoing household bills; funds to pay off a mortgage, credit cards and other debt; money to pay for college, or money to pay funeral costs and other final expenses. For business owners, life insurance also plays a vital role in business succession planning.

How Much Life Insurance Do I need?

A simple way to determine the amount of life insurance needed for income replacement purposes is to multiply the annual income to be replaced by the number of years it will be needed. If the insured is earning income, use the amount contributed to the household (after personal expenses and taxes). If the insured does not have income (perhaps a stay-at-home parent or caregiver), determine how much will be needed to pay someone to take over those responsibilities. For example, a dad who wants enough life insurance to replace his income for 20 years (until his children have completed college) would take the amount of annual income he wants to replace and multiply that by 20. He may want to add enough to pay for college and other expenses. The total amount is how much life insurance he needs. This is called the “face value” or “death benefit.”

Term Life Insurance VS. Permanent Life Insurance

Generally, there are two kinds of life insurance: term and permanent. Other “hybrid” life insurance policies can provide additional benefits, like long term care, however, this article will focus on general life insurance policies.

Term life insurance provides coverage for a set number of years or term. It can be a good choice when coverage is needed for a certain number of years; for example, until the kids are out of college or the mortgage is paid off. It is also less expensive than permanent life insurance and is least expensive when the insured is young and healthy. For these reasons, term life insurance is often a popular choice for young families.

Permanent life insurance, on the other hand, does not expire at the end of a specified term as long as the premiums are paid. Generally, the coverage stays in effect during the insured’s lifetime. The premium can either stay the same or fluctuate based upon the financial performance of the policy. Permanent policies also build cash value over time that can be borrowed from the policy can be used to help pay the premiums, or can be refunded if the policy is canceled. Any money borrowed will be charged against the proceeds paid at the insured’s death.

The amount a family pays for life insurance must be a reasonable and manageable expense. The cost will depend on the amount, kind (term vs. permanent), and the age and health of the person to be insured. If the cost to replace income for 20 or 30 years is too much for the family budget, one option is to cover five to seven years of expenses, which will give the family time to cope and adjust after the loss.

Incorporating life insurance into an estate plan can be vital to making sure family and loved ones are taken care of. We welcome the opportunity to help you with your planning, and to help you achieve peace of mind for you and your family contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994.

Considerations Before Heading South for the Winter

For many snowbirds, cooler weather means it is time to head south. If you are thinking about heading for warmer weather this winter, there are a few things you should consider before hitting the road.

What is happening in your destination state?

Because we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it would be prudent to do some research about your winter destination. How many COVID-19 cases has the state had? Are these numbers trending upward? Upon your arrival, will the local or state government require that you quarantine for a period of time? Lastly, are there any additional local orders that you should be aware of, such as a requirement that masks be worn indoors or restrictions on dining in restaurants?

Which state do you consider your home?

Your state of domicile impacts your estate planning, family law matters, and taxes. Due to differences in state tests for determining residency, you can be considered a resident of more than one state; however, you can only be domiciled in one state. Although state laws differ as to determining domiciliary status, the common elements are that your domicile is where you permanently live and where you intend to remain or return. 

Because you are spending time in two (or more) states, you should meet with your tax advisor to confirm that you are filing the appropriate tax returns and have a plan in place to maximize the potential differences in tax laws. For example, Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming do not have any personal income tax. You should also consider meeting with us to discuss the estate planning implications of owning properties in multiple states, especially if you own properties in both community and separate property states

Have you reviewed your estate plan lately?

Before you depart, locate and review your estate planning documents. Life changes are common and sometimes occur without warning. Having an up-to-date estate plan helps ensure that your wishes are carried out during your lifetime and upon your death. The following questions can help determine if your documents still meet your needs.

  • Do you still want your named fiduciaries (i.e., the trustee, personal representative, guardian for a minor child, and agents under a financial power of attorney or medical power of attorney) to act on your behalf, and are they still able to serve in that role?
  • Are your named beneficiaries still alive? Are there any additional individuals or charities you would like to leave something to? Do you want to make any adjustments to the amount of an inheritance or the manner in which you are leaving an inheritance to a beneficiary?
  • Do your beneficiary designations for retirement accounts and life insurance policies match the rest of your estate plan?
  • If you need to move for health reasons but cannot make the decision for yourself, does your agent have the authority to relocate you to another state?

Additionally, you may require assistance with financial matters or transactions while you are away. For this reason, you should review your financial power of attorney to determine if it is springing or immediate. A springing power of attorney allows your agent to act only when you are no longer able to act on your own (as determined by a physician or, in some instances, a judge). By contrast, an immediate power of attorney allows your chosen agent to act on your behalf right away, regardless of your current ability to act for yourself. 

While reviewing your existing estate plan, you should evaluate whether it includes all of the necessary documents. If you currently have a will-based estate plan, it may be time to add a revocable living trust to your estate planning portfolio. This is especially important if you own property in more than one state. Without a trust to consolidate ownership and administration, your loved ones may end up going through multiple probate administrations in different states. This can increase the time and cost of settling your affairs at your death. 

Are your estate planning documents compliant in both states?

Estate planning laws are state specific and for certain documents, such as the financial power of attorney and healthcare directive, each state may have its own statutory forms. While it is possible for one state to honor a document that was validly executed in another state, it will be faster for medical personnel to honor your wishes in an emergency if your instructions are in a familiar form. We suggest that you have an attorney licensed in your second state review your estate planning documents for compliance, and if necessary, prepare a second financial power of attorney and healthcare directive.

As you prepare for your upcoming travel, please do not hesitate to give us a call. We are here to answer any questions and to make sure you are properly protected no matter where you may roam. We are available to meet with you in person or via video conference. 

What a Personal Property Memorandum Can Do for Your Will or Trust

Avoid family feuds over heirlooms. Family members often end up arguing over mom or dad’s favorite items when that parent dies. Arguments can take place over things like a coffee mug, a piece of jewelry or a painting. These types of arguments can be eliminated by filling out a personal property memorandum and keeping it with your will or trust.

A personal property memorandum is designed to cover who should receive items owned that don’t have an official title record. Personal property includes furniture, jewelry, art, and other collections, as well as household items like china and silverware. Personal property memoranda may not include real estate or business interests, money and bank accounts, stocks or bonds, copyrights, and IOUs.

When writing your memorandum, it is best to keep things simple. Personal property memoranda generally resemble a list of items with the attached names of the inheritors. It can be handwritten or typed but should always be signed and dated.

All items should contain sufficient detail so that argument and confusion can be avoided. Complete contact information including address, phone, email, and a backup contact if possible should be included. Do not include items that you have already explicitly left in your will or trust.

The beauty of a separate list of personal items and their planned distribution is that if you later decide to change who receives what, you simply update your current list, or replace the list altogether. You can destroy an old record or maintain signature and dates on each of your personal property memoranda so that it is easy to identify your most current set of wishes.

A personal property memorandum for your tangible personal effects is a simple way to address how you want your personal property to be distributed. We would be happy to help you create a legal personal property memorandum along with any other estate planning documents you may need. Please do not hesitate to contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994.

 

Saving for School: Planning for Your Family’s Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2018–2019 academic year, the average tuition and fees for a public four-year institution were $9,200; $35,800 for a private nonprofit four-year institution; $3,700 for a public two-year institution; and $18,400 for a private nonprofit two-year institution. If postsecondary education is in your family’s future, including any of the following tools in your estate plan can be an excellent way to help provide for education needs.

Health and Education Exclusion Trust

A health and education exclusion trust (HEET) is an irrevocable trust tailored to help you avoid paying gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes on tuition and medical care expenses for individuals two or more generations younger than you (grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.). Tuition payments made from a HEET directly to an educational institution on behalf of one of these beneficiaries are not subject to gift tax. These payments, if made on behalf of a “skip person” from a non–GST tax-exempt trust are not subject to the GST tax. However, in order to qualify for these benefits, at least one trust beneficiary must be a charitable organization with a significant interest. This can be a great option if you are charitably inclined and want to provide education assistance for multiple generations.

Irrevocable Gifting Trust

Using either the annual gift tax exclusion or lifetime gift tax exemption, an irrevocable gifting trust holds and invests property for your chosen beneficiaries for a variety of purposes, not just education. If you want to use the annual gift tax exclusion to shelter gifts to the trust for gift tax purposes, you will need to include a Crummey power. A Crummey power is a technique that allows your beneficiary to receive a gift that would not usually be eligible for gift tax exclusion but makes the gift eligible. To accomplish this, after each annual gift is made, your beneficiary must be given an opportunity to withdraw the amount that was gifted. However, the beneficiary will often leave the money in the trust to ensure that you will keep making the annual gifts according to the original plan. You can stop making gifts at any time.

Provision in a Revocable Living Trust

If you already have an existing revocable living trust, including a provision for the payment of your child’s or grandchild’s education expenses can be an easy way to help even if you pass away before the education is completed. Upon your passing, the money will be available to be used as you have directed. One benefit is that during your lifetime, you can change the trust provisions as often as you like. Additionally, you can determine how the money should be used. Your definition of education expenses can be as broad or as narrow as you want, and not all of the money in the trust has to be used for education expenses.

Revocable Education Trust

A revocable education trust provides substantial flexibility, as it allows you to set up a trust, act as a trustee, and make distributions for your chosen beneficiary’s education, but it can be revoked or revised if the funds are needed for other purposes or if the beneficiary does not attend college. It will not provide the tax benefits of other trusts or education plans, but it may be a better option if flexibility is a priority.

529 Plans

A 529 plan is a savings plan that provides tax advantages designed to encourage people to save for their child’s or grandchild’s future education costs. There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid tuition plans and education savings plans.

Prepaid Tuition Plan

A prepaid tuition plan allows you to purchase units or credits for your beneficiary’s future tuition and mandatory fees in advance at the current prices, helping to avoid paying the higher costs that likely will be charged in the future. These plans are usually available only for public and in-state colleges, cannot be used for room and board, and cannot be used to prepay tuition for elementary and secondary schools. If the beneficiary later decides to attend a private college or university, prepaid funds can be applied to tuition at most private postsecondary institutions.

Education Savings Plan

An education savings plan enables you to open investment accounts to save for any qualified higher education expenses. The funds can be used not only for tuition and fees, but also for college expenses such as room and board, computers, and software. This account can also be used to pay for education expenses at some international institutions. In addition, up to $10,000 can be used for elementary and secondary school tuition.

Coverdell Education Savings Account

A Coverdell education savings account (ESA) is a savings account used to fund qualified education expenses. Although the contributions are not deductible, the distributions and growth are tax-free as long as the funds are used for qualified education expenses. Unlike some other options, the Coverdell ESA can be used toward qualified education expenses for elementary and secondary education without a monetary cap. In contrast to a 529 plan, this program has an income limit (adjusted gross income must be less than $110,000, or $220,000 for those filing a joint return), as well as a contribution maximum ($2,000 per year per beneficiary).

Uniform Transfers to Minors Act and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act Accounts

The Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) accounts are types of trusts whereby a custodian manages money and property on behalf of the minor owner. However, unlike other types of trusts, UTMA and UGMA accounts do not require that any trust documents be prepared or that a court appoint a trustee. All of the required trust instructions are spelled out in the state’s statute. Until the minor reaches the age of majority (eighteen or twenty-one depending on the statute), the custodian must manage and use the funds for the benefit of the minor, which can include the payment of education expenses. However, once the owner reaches the age of majority, the money is turned over to the owner, who can choose how it is managed and spent.

Impact on Financial Aid

It is important to note that setting aside money for a child’s or grandchild’s education expenses may impact the ability to qualify for need-based financial aid. The identity of the account owner impacts whether the account must be disclosed on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the weight it will be given in the need-based calculation. Additionally, most types of trusts must be reported on the FAFSA as an asset of the beneficiary.

We Are Here to Help

Working together with your financial team, we can craft a plan that accomplishes all of your family’s education goals and sets them up for the best possible future. We are available to meet in person or by video conference—please let us know what is most convenient.

Saving for College: What If There Is Money Left Over?

Setting money aside for your children’s or grandchildren’s education is a great way to provide for their future. However, it is possible that not all of the money you have set aside will be used for college expenses. For example, your child may receive a large scholarship and will not need to use all the money you have saved, or your grandchild may choose a trade school that is less costly than you expected. Alternatively, your child or grandchild may decide to join the workforce immediately upon graduation. When confronted with this scenario, you may wonder what you can do with the excess money. The answer depends on how the money is managed.

Trusts Created by You

Health education exclusion trust. The purpose of a health education exclusion trust is to provide for the education and medical needs of multiple beneficiaries over more than one generation (typically grandchildren and great-grandchildren), and if money is left over because one beneficiary did not need all of it, it will not affect the operation of the trust. For example, a different beneficiary may decide to go to medical school and thus utilize the perceived excess.

Irrevocable gifting trust. If you work with an experienced estate planning attorney when creating an irrevocable gifting trust, your attorney can help you include instructions for how the trustee should handle the remaining funds if the beneficiaries do not need them. You are free to include instructions in the trust document that allow the beneficiary to use the remaining funds to purchase a house, start a business, or save as a nest egg for retirement. Alternatively, you could name a different beneficiary (e.g., a family member, friend, or charity) to receive the remaining amount.

Revocable living trust. Similarly, if you choose to add a provision to your existing revocable living trust to provide for the education expenses of your child or grandchild upon your death, you can include instructions for what will happen to the remaining money if the entire amount is not needed. Additionally, with a revocable trust, you can change your mind and draft additional contingencies into your plan until your death or incapacity.

Revocable education trust. Like a revocable living trust, a revocable education trust can also be changed up until your death or incapacity. Because the funds held by the trust will likely be distributed during your lifetime, you can amend or revoke the trust if your or the beneficiary’s life circumstances change. You can add or remove beneficiaries, transfer money to or withdraw money from the trust, or create a different set of criteria for making distributions to the beneficiaries.

Accounts Created by Statute

Accounts established pursuant to a state’s Uniform Transfers to Minors Act or Uniform Gifts to Minors Act are set up to hold money and property on behalf of a minor. They impose no education-specific requirements for use of the money, and the only generally understood prohibition is that the money should not be used for expenses that are normally deemed to be parental obligations (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, etc.). Once the minor reaches the age of majority (eighteen or twenty-one depending on the state), the money is turned over to the owner to use freely. If the minor passes away with funds remaining in the account, it will be distributed according to the state’s intestate statute.

State or Federal Education Plans

Internal Revenue Service Publication 970 sets forth similar regulations regarding 529 plans and Coverdell education savings accounts (ESAs). The money held in 529 plans and Coverdell ESAs can be rolled over from one account to another of the same type, and the designated beneficiary on the account can be changed to a member of the beneficiary’s family. A rollover can be for the benefit of the same beneficiary or another member of the beneficiary’s family (e.g., a spouse, child, stepchild, sibling, parent, etc.) who is under age thirty. However, the age limitation does not apply if the new beneficiary is a special-needs beneficiary.

While there are no federal tax consequences for rolling over an account, it is important to check with your tax advisor regarding the state income tax consequences if you received state tax breaks for your prior contributions and are now rolling the account over to an account in a different state. If there is no one likely to use the funds for qualified education expenses, the funds can be withdrawn and used for nonqualified expenses; however, they will be subject to income tax on the investment earnings as well as a 10 percent penalty.

We Are Here to Help

There are many different options for funding your family’s education future, and what happens to any unused funds largely depends on which option you choose. We are here to assist you and your financial team in choosing the best strategy for your unique situation to ensure that your wishes are carried out. Please contact our office by calling us at (405) 241-5994 to schedule a virtual or in-person meeting.

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