Your estate plan may include several different trusts. The reason is that various types of trusts can accomplish a myriad of estate planning goals. Thus, it’s critical to understand the role of a trustee.
The trustee’s duties
The trustee is the person who has legal responsibility for administering the trust on behalf of the interested parties. Depending on the trust terms, this authority may be broad or limited.
Generally, a trustee must meet fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries of the trust. He or she must manage the trust prudently and treat all beneficiaries fairly and impartially.
This can be more difficult than it sounds because beneficiaries may have competing interests. For example, under a trust’s terms, a spouse in a second marriage may be entitled to annual income while the children of the deceased’s first marriage are entitled to the remainder. The trustee must balance out their needs when making investment decisions.
In some instances, the trustee is granted the discretion to distribute or withhold the distribution of trust funds. For example, this discretionary power may be intended to protect assets from the beneficiary’s creditors or safeguard funds until the beneficiary reaches a certain age. The trustee in such a discretionary trust should be sympathetic to the intent of the trust and legitimate needs of the beneficiary.
The decision about naming a trustee is similar to the dilemma of choosing an executor. The responsibilities require great attention to detail, financial acumen and dedication. Because of the heavy reliance on investment expertise, choosing a professional over a family member or friend is generally recommended. At the very least, make it clear to the trustee that he or she may — and should — rely on professionals as appropriate.
Reasons for choosing an alternate
It’s not enough to designate someone as trustee. It’s absolutely essential to also designate a “successor” (or an “alternate”) in the event that your top choice is unable or unwilling to fulfill the responsibilities. For instance, what happens if your trustee predeceases you? Or what if your designated trustee declines to accept the position or subsequently resigns if permission is allowed by the trust or permitted by a court? This further accentuates the need to name backups for this important position.
Without a named successor, the probate court will appoint one for the estate. For a trustee, the trust will often outline procedures to follow. As a last resort, a court will appoint someone else to do the job.
Practical suggestion: Choose the “next best” person to step in. Make sure that he or she is on board with your decision. Similar to the discussion about naming a power of attorney, consider whether you should name a professional as a backup. Contact us with questions.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
For years, life insurance has played a critical role in estate planning, providing a source of liquidity to pay estate taxes and other expenses. Today, the gift and estate tax exemption has climbed to $11.4 million, so estate taxes are no longer a concern for the vast majority of families. But even for nontaxable estates, life insurance continues to offer estate planning benefits.
Replacing income and wealth
Life insurance can protect your family by replacing your lost income. It can also be used to replace wealth in a variety of contexts. For example, suppose you own highly appreciated real estate or other assets and wish to dispose of them without generating current capital gains tax liability. One option is to contribute the assets to a charitable remainder trust (CRT).
As a tax-exempt entity, the CRT can sell the assets and reinvest the proceeds without triggering capital gains tax. In addition, you and your spouse will enjoy an income stream and charitable income tax deductions. Typically, distributions you receive from the CRT are treated as a combination of ordinary taxable income, capital gains, tax-exempt income and tax-free return of principal.
After you and your spouse die, the remaining trust assets pass to charity. This will reduce the amount of wealth available to your children or other heirs. But you can use life insurance (a cost-effective second-to-die policy, for example) to replace that lost wealth.
You can also use life insurance to replace wealth that’s lost to long term care (LTC) expenses, such as nursing home costs, for you or your spouse. Although LTC insurance is available, it can be expensive, especially if you’re already beyond retirement age. For many people, a better option is to use personal savings and investments to fund their LTC needs and to purchase life insurance to replace the money that’s spent on such care. One advantage of this approach is that, if neither you nor your spouse needs LTC, your heirs will enjoy a windfall.
Finding the right policy
These are just a few examples of the many benefits provided by life insurance. We can help determine which type of life insurance policy is right for your situation. 205-345-9898 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2019 CovenantCPA
If your estate includes forms of intellectual property (IP), such as patents and copyrights, it’s important to know how to address them in your estate plan. Although these intangible assets can have great value, in many ways they’re treated differently from other property types.
2 estate planning questions
For estate planning purposes, IP raises two important questions: 1) What’s it worth? and 2) How should it be transferred? Valuing IP is a complex process, so it’s best to obtain an appraisal from an experienced professional.
After you know the IP’s value, it’s time to decide whether to transfer the IP to family members, colleagues, charities or others through lifetime gifts or through bequests after your death. The gift and estate tax consequences will affect your decision, but also consider your income needs, as well as who’s in the best position to monitor your IP rights and take advantage of their benefits.
If you’ll continue to depend on the IP for your livelihood, for example, hold on to it at least until you’re ready to retire or you no longer need the income. You also might want to retain ownership if you feel that your children or other transferees lack the desire or wherewithal to exploit its economic potential and protect it against infringers.
Achieving your objectives
Whichever strategy you choose, it’s important to plan the transaction carefully to ensure that your objectives are achieved. There’s a common misconception that, when you transfer ownership of the tangible medium on which IP is recorded, you also transfer the IP rights. But IP rights are separate from the work itself and are retained by the creator — even if the work is sold or given away.
Suppose, for example, that you leave to your child a film, painting or written manuscript. Unless your estate plan specifically transfers the copyright to your child as well, the copyright may pass as part of your residuary estate and end up in the hands of someone else.
Revise your plan accordingly
If you own patents or copyrights, you probably have great interest in who’ll take possession of your work after you’re gone. Addressing IP in your estate plan can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out, but the law surrounding such property can be complex. Discuss your options with us by calling 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
No matter how much effort you’ve invested in designing your estate plan, your will, trusts and other official documents aren’t enough. You should also create a “road map” — an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out. Your road map should include, among other things:
- A list of important contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
- The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
- A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards, and other debts,
- An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
- Computer passwords and home security system codes,
- Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys,
- The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property, and
- Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.
The road map can also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.
Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor. Contact us at 205-345-9898 to start your road map.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
There’s no law that says you can’t prepare your own estate plan. And with an abundance of online services that automate the creation of wills and other documents, it’s easy to do. But unless your estate is small and your plan is exceedingly simple, the pitfalls of do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning can be many.
Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s
A common mistake people make with DIY estate planning is to neglect the formalities associated with the execution of wills and other documents. Rules vary from state to state regarding the number and type of witnesses who must attest to a will and what, specifically, they must attest to.
Also, states have different rules about interested parties (that is, beneficiaries) serving as witnesses to a will or trust. In many states, interested parties are ineligible to serve as witnesses. In others, an interested-party witness triggers an increase in the required number of witnesses (from two to three, for example).
Keeping abreast of tax law changes
Legislative developments during the last several years demonstrate how changes in the tax laws from one year to the next can have a dramatic impact on your estate planning strategies. DIY service providers don’t offer legal or tax advice — and provide lengthy disclaimers to prove it. Thus, they cannot be expected to warn users that tax law changes may adversely affect their plans.
Consider this example: A decade ago, in 2008, George used an online service to generate estate planning documents. At the time, his estate was worth $4 million and the federal estate tax exemption was $2 million.
George’s plan provided for the creation of a trust for the benefit of his children, funded with the maximum amount that could be transferred free of federal estate tax, with the remainder going to his wife, Ann. If George died in 2008, for example, $2 million would have gone into the trust and the remaining $2 million would have gone to Ann.
Suppose, however, that George dies in 2018, when the federal estate tax exemption has increased to $11.18 million and his estate has grown to $10 million. Under the terms of his plan, the entire $10 million — all of which can be transferred free of federal estate tax — will pass to the trust, leaving nothing for Ann.
While even a qualified professional couldn’t have predicted in 2008 what the estate tax exemption would be at George’s death, he or she could have structured a plan that would provide the flexibility needed to respond to tax law changes.
Don’t try this at home
These are just a few examples of the many pitfalls associated with DIY estate planning. To help ensure that you achieve your estate planning objectives, contact us to review your existing plan at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
Even though you can’t physically touch digital assets, they’re just as important to include in your estate plan as your material assets. Digital assets may include online bank and brokerage accounts, digital photo galleries, and even email and social media accounts.
If you die without addressing these assets in your estate plan, your loved ones or other representatives may not be able to access them without going to court — or, worse yet, may not even know they exist.
Virtual documents in lieu of hard copies
Traditionally, when a loved one dies, family members go through his or her home to look for personal and business documents, including tax returns, bank and brokerage account statements, stock certificates, contracts, insurance policies, loan agreements, and so on. They may also collect photo albums, safe deposit box keys, correspondence and other valuable items.
Today, however, many of these items may not exist in “hard copy” form. Unless your estate plan addresses these digital assets, how will your family know where to find them or how to gain access?
Suppose, for example, that you opened a brokerage account online and elected to receive all of your statements electronically. Typically, the institution sends you an email — which you may or may not save — alerting you that the current statement is available. You log on to the institution’s website and view the statement, which you may or may not download to your computer.
If something were to happen to you, would your family or executor know that this account exists? Perhaps you save all of your statements and correspondence related to the account on your computer. But would your representatives know where to look? And if your computer is password protected, do they know the password?
Revealing your digital assets
The first step in accounting for digital assets is to conduct an inventory of any computers, servers, handheld devices, websites or other places where these assets are stored.
Although you might want to provide in your will for the disposition of certain digital assets, a will isn’t the place to list passwords or other confidential information. For one thing, a will is a public document.
One solution is writing an informal letter to your executor or personal representative that lists important accounts, website addresses, usernames and passwords. The letter can be stored with a trusted advisor or in some other secure place.
Another solution is to establish a master password that gives the representative access to a list of passwords for all your important accounts, either on your computer or through a Web-based “password vault.”
We can help you account for any digital assets in your estate plan. Contact us at 205-345-9898
© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA
The most effective estate planning strategies often involve the use of irrevocable trusts. But what if you’re uncomfortable placing your assets beyond your control? What happens if your financial fortunes take a turn for the worse after you’ve irrevocably transferred a sizable portion of your wealth?
If your marriage is strong, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) can be a viable strategy to obtain the benefits of an irrevocable trust while creating a financial backup plan.
A SLAT is an irrevocable trust that authorizes the trustee to make distributions to your spouse if a need arises. Like other irrevocable trusts, a SLAT can be designed to benefit your children, grandchildren or future generations. You can use your lifetime gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions (currently, $11.18 million each) to shield contributions to the trust, as well as future appreciation, from transfer taxes. And the trust assets also receive some protection against claims by your beneficiaries’ creditors, including any former spouses.
The key benefit of a SLAT is that, by naming your spouse as a lifetime beneficiary, you retain indirect access to the trust assets. You can set up the trust to make distributions based on an “ascertainable standard” — such as your spouse’s health, education, maintenance or support — or you can give the trustee full discretion to distribute income or principal to your spouse.
To keep the trust assets out of your taxable estate, you must not act as trustee. You can appoint your spouse as trustee, but only if distributions are limited to an ascertainable standard. If you desire greater flexibility over distributions to your spouse, appoint an independent trustee. Also, the trust document must prohibit distributions in satisfaction of your legal support obligations.
Another critical requirement is to fund the trust with your separate property. If you use marital or community property, there’s a risk that the trust assets will end up in your spouse’s estate.
There’s a significant risk inherent in the SLAT strategy: If your spouse predeceases you, or if you and your spouse divorce, you’ll lose your indirect access to the trust assets. But there may be ways to mitigate this risk.
If you’re considering using a SLAT, contact us at 205-345-9898 to learn more about the benefits and risks of this type of trust.
© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA
Naming a minor as beneficiary of a life insurance policy or retirement plan can lead to unintended outcomes
A common estate planning mistake is to designate a minor as beneficiary — or contingent beneficiary — of a life insurance policy or retirement plan. While making your young child the beneficiary of such assets may seem like an excellent way to provide for him or her in the case of your untimely death, doing so can have significant undesirable consequences.
Not per your wishes
The first problem with designating a minor as a beneficiary is that insurance companies and financial institutions generally won’t pay large sums of money directly to a minor. What they’ll typically do in such situations is require costly court proceedings to appoint a guardian to manage the child’s inheritance. And there’s no guarantee the guardian will be someone you’d choose.
For example, let’s suppose you’re divorcing your spouse and you’ve appointed your minor children as beneficiaries. If you die while the children are still minors, a guardian for the assets will be required. The court will likely appoint their living parent — your ex-spouse — which may be inconsistent with your wishes.
Age of majority
There’s another problem with naming a minor as a beneficiary: The funds will have to be turned over to the child after he or she reaches the age of majority (18 or 21, depending on state law). Generally, that isn’t the ideal age for a child to gain unrestricted access to large sums of money.
A better strategy
Instead of naming your minor child as beneficiary of your life insurance policy or retirement plan, designate one or more trusts as beneficiaries. Then make your child a beneficiary of the trust(s). This approach provides several advantages. It:
- Avoids the need for guardianship proceedings,
- Gives you the opportunity to select the trustee who’ll be responsible for managing the assets, and
- Allows you to determine when the child will receive the funds and under what circumstances.
If you’re unsure of whom to name as beneficiary of your life insurance policy or retirement plan or would like to learn about more ways to provide for your minor children, please contact us.
© 2018 Covenant Consulting