Five Reasons for Parents to Share Estate Plans

November 26, 2014,

Many parents with adult children find the idea of discussing their estate plans uncomfortable, embarrassing, or unnecessary. Few parents want to think about their mortality or bring up the subject with their kids. Concerns about family fights over parts of the estate, which child is getting what, or reliance on a future inheritance also put parents off from discussing their plans with their children; however, there are some great benefits both emotionally and financially that can come with sharing your plans with your children.

Telling your children ahead of time about your estate plans allows you as parents to explain your decisions and lets the children plan their lives accordingly. Feedback from the children can also have an effect on your estate plans that you can implement before it is too late. In some cases, there can even be tax benefits involved. Full disclosure of estate plans may not be right for every family, but here are five reasons why it might be worthwhile to share your estate planning with your children.

You Can Settle Any Issues

Resentment over distributions in an estate plan amongst children can last a lifetime and end up costing them their inheritance if someone decides to sue. By having the conversation with the children, parents can explain why they are bequeathing their estate in that way. Perhaps one child needs more assistance, one has multiple children and others have none, or maybe the parents plan on leaving a segment of the estate to a nonprofit or charitable organization. By discussing the "why" while alive, it can alleviate hurt feelings in the future.

You Can Save Hassles and Prevent Mistakes

When parents let their children know what to expect in the estate plan, and where everything is located, it can save them a lot of hassle during an already devastating time. Grieving while also trying to sort out financial and legal issues is a nightmare that can be easily avoided with a simple conversation.

You Can Presently Increase Their Quality of Life

Not all children will simply give up on their dreams or become lax in their lives because they know that they will eventually get an inheritance. In fact, many adult children could use that money now to help with a business, provide for their family, or use it in other productive ways. Sometimes gifting part of the inheritance while the parents are alive is more productive for the children than waiting until the parents are gone to receive it.

Your Children Might Have Been Ideas for the Estate

Some parents might have concerns about specific assets in the estate, particularly a house or business, and want to ensure that it will be taken care of. Discussing these plans with the children can help the parent see any potential pitfall in their requirements and allow the children to know what is expected of them.

You Can Save Them Some Taxes

Lastly, parents need to consider the tax consequences that leaving their estate might have on their children. This is especially important for adult children that already have a taxable estate without the assets that the parents leave behind. By coordinating estate plans with their children, parents can help save their children taxes by exploring other options for inheritance such as passing on wealth to the grandchildren or gifting assets while alive.

How Naming Rights Can Go Wrong

November 25, 2014,

For wealthy donors who wish to put their name on a building, beware. There can be a lot of disappointment for donors who give away large sums of money, thinking that they would get to see their name on a building or institution like a university, science lab, or cultural center but end up in a legal battle instead.

Naming Rights and More

The best way to ensure that this type of drama is avoided is for donors to clearly state their wishes in a detailed, legally binding document. Donors need to make sure that all payment terms, signage, publicity, and deadlines for work to be done are also set within the contract. Each party should know exactly what they are agreeing to.

For example, one wealthy donor wanted to leave millions to his alma mater and have a library named after him. His agreement specified that his name was the only one to be on the library and that it must last into perpetuity. The detailed agreement came in handy when the university tried to replace the donor's name with another after a few months. One phone call was all that it took to rectify the mistake because the contract provided that the donor could sue the school to enforce the agreement or get his money back.

Some disputes go beyond the naming rights and into other areas. For example, country singer Garth Brooks recently got into a battle with an organization over the construction of a building. Mr. Brooks made a $500,000 donation to Intigris Canadian Valley Hospital in Oklahoma on the condition that the hospital would build a women's center named after his mother. The hospital argued that it never agreed to those conditions and used the money elsewhere. Mr. Brooks sued and the jury not only awarded him back his donation but also doubled the award for punitive damages against the hospital.

Donors have the right to decide how much flexibility an organization can have with a donation. The donation can be made with strict compliance guidelines, or it can be given with a little leeway. They should also be sure to elect someone to ensure that the recipient sticks to the agreement after the donor becomes incapacitated or dies.

Other Issues with Naming Rights

Donors much also consider how long the recipient must stick to the agreement. As years go by, the circumstances surrounding the donation and naming rights might need some flexibility. For example, donors should consider what should happen if the building needs serious renovation or is torn down, and new potential donors want naming rights.

Similar considerations apply if the donation is a bequest or a gift named in an estate plan to an organization or institution. In that case, the estate plan should include room for flexibility in case the gift's purpose is no longer relevant. That can be accomplished by either giving the recipient leeway with the gift or by naming alternate plans for the donation.

Avoid the Estate Planning Aggregator Scam

November 21, 2014,

One estate planning scam is growing in popularity for people who are looking to begin crafting their estate plan and have amassed wealth or business over their lifetimes. The estate planning aggregator claims to do comprehensive planning for people who have concerns about taxes on their wealth or business issues in their estate.

Estate Planning Aggregator

An aggregator is a person who claims to do comprehensive estate planning for individuals with complex estates. Typically, they recommend that you purchase a "wealth blueprint" or something similarly named for tens of thousands of dollars that will detail how exactly your estate will be taken care of.

Once a person agrees to purchase a wealth blueprint and sends in information regarding their estate and assets, the aggregator will create a thick booklet full of flowery discussion of your wealth, all sorts of spreadsheets and discussion that shows how you can reduce your estate taxes to zero, give your assets silver-bullet protection against creditors, and also reduce your income taxes to a pittance. It sounds great, but once you agree to the plan, the scam kicks in.

The Aggregator Scam

The aggregator will inform you that he does not actually do any of the work for the estate plan, but he can recommend the professionals who will know how to get it done. The planner then sends you a letter recommending that you go see Attorney A about drafting one part of the plan and Attorney B about another part. You also have to meet with Insurance Salesman C because you must have life insurance with your estate plan, and do not forget to see Financial Planner D to invest your moneys.

That is the scam of the aggregator - someone who does not make money doing any of the actual planning but makes great money putting together the information into a pretty booklet. For the tens of thousands of dollars that you paid, he took a couple of hours inputting your information into a program, five minutes printing the pages, and another ten minutes to bind it and stick it in the mail.

Sometimes the aggregator will tell you that the reason for the price is the state of the art software that he developed or the countless hours that he spent creating your plan. However, several companies license software to aggregators and claims of their own proprietary software should not be seriously considered.

Strength of the Plan

Some people might think that the aggregator is still worth it because in the end you got an amazing plan, but the aggregator does not know whether his strategies will work or fail. His job is simply to cast a wide net for planners and strategies that he can sell to potential clients. It does not matter if the strategy works as long as it looks like it could create huge savings for the client.

In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars received by the client, the aggregator also makes much more. Each strategy peddler that the aggregator sends a client to also sends him a referral fee for services, depending on what they spend. The planners are usually just mills, meaning that they only do one or two specific transactions but does a lot of them cookie-cutter style. No matter the client's particular circumstances or needs, the client is going to be squished into fitting that strategy.

Creating an Estate Plan for Your Treasures

November 19, 2014,

One New York resident, now 65 years old and in retirement, has amassed a Las Vegas chip collection worth an estimated $500,000 over the course of two decades. However, he is childless, and no one in his extended family has expressed an interest in keeping the collection. He is also concerned that they will sell the collection for far less than its actual worth. Collectors can spend a lifetime accumulating things like baseball cards, comic books, casino chips, and art. However, too often these collectors do not think about what to do with these collections once they pass away.

The Need for Proper Planning

Many collectors hope that someone in their family or group of friends will enjoy their collection enough to keep it and maintain what they have done. Others think that another collector will pay a lot of money to their heirs for what they have amassed and assume that the heirs know what it is worth. Some hope that their collections will be donated to a museum in order to be displayed for posterity. However, none of these plans can be known for certain without proper estate planning.

If you do not state with certainty what you wish to have happen to your collection after you pass away, it could as easily end up in a yard sale as it could a museum. In addition, you and your heirs could miss out on valuable tax saving opportunities if you do not have an estate plan for these belongings.

Estate Planning Options for Collectors

There are a few estate planning options for collectors in regards to what they wish to have happen to their collections after they are gone. Each option comes with its own set of steps to ensure that your heirs follow through with your final wishes for your collection.

Passing on the Collection

If you wish to pass on your collection to your heirs, the most important thing to do is make sure that there is someone who wants to take it. You also need to make sure that your heir has the ability to maintain the collection and pay for any upkeep, including insurance and storage.

Other considerations for passing on a collection include how to compensate those heirs who do not receive the collection? If more than one heir expresses an interest in the collection, how do you split it up? If you split the collection, will it affect the value? Finally, if no one can afford the upkeep on the collection, are you willing to leave an endowment from your estate to maintain it?

Selling the Collection

If you wish to have your collection sold upon your death, the first thing that you should do is have it appraised, both as a whole and as any smaller lots you may think might happen in the selling process. Keep in mind that collectibles are taxed for capital gains at a rate of 28%, and the sale might be subject to other costs like commission and shipping.

Donating the Collection

A final option for collectors in estate planning is to donate their collections. Donation can be a complex and time consuming process. Some institutions only want part of a collection, and others want a donation of money in addition to the collection for maintenance and storage. However, donating to public organizations can also come with tax benefits for the current year and up to the next five years.

Back to Basics: Special Needs Trusts

November 17, 2014,

If your loved one has special needs or development disabilities, you may want to consider establishing a special needs trust. Also known as a supplemental needs trust, this type of trust is a legal tool used to help disabled people keep more of their income or assets without losing public benefits.

Purpose of Special Needs Trusts

This type of trust was initially created to help parents with disabled children provide for them as they grew up without making them ineligible for public benefit programs, like Social Security and Medicaid. The intent of the trust is to supplement any government benefits that they may receive or to shield excess income for Medicaid purposes.

The Medicaid program requires that participants spend down their assets in order to reach a certain level of need before qualifying for benefits. A special needs trust can be used so that a disabled Medicaid beneficiary can keep the benefit of almost all of their income, instead of using it to pay for care. That income can also be used to qualify a disabled person for the Medicare Savings Program.

If a disabled person under the age of 65 receives a lump sum, from retroactive Social Security or a personal injury settlement, a special needs trust can protect that money and keep that person eligible for government benefits. By transferring the lump sum into a special needs trust the person can remain eligible for all of their benefits and use the money in the trust to supplement their regular income for years to come.

Types of Special Needs Trusts

New York law recognizes three kinds of special needs trusts, but each type of special needs trust comes with its own set of rules, requirements, and registration. The three types of special needs trusts are a first party, third party, and pooled trust.

First Party Special Needs Trust

A first party special needs trust is funded with assets owned by the trust beneficiary. Also known as a "self-settled trust" or "(d)(4)(A) trust," this type of trust can be established to protect current or future income from, for example, an inheritance or personal injury settlement that would bring the disabled person above the limits for government benefits.

The law requires that the trust must be for the benefit of the individual with disabilities, and it must be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, or the court. It must be irrevocable, and the trust agreement must also include a Medicaid payback provision. This requires the state Medicaid program to be reimbursed upon the death of the beneficiary.

Third Party Special Needs Trust

A third party special needs trust is funded by parents, relatives, or friends of the disabled beneficiary. This type of trust is preferred by parents or other friends and relatives who want to leave an inheritance to a loved one with disabilities. Not only does this type of trust shelter an intended inheritance, it can also be used during the parents' lifetimes for ongoing expenses that are not covered by government benefits.

A significant attraction of the third party SNT is that, unlike a first party SNT, when the beneficiary dies, there is no Medicaid payback requirement. The person who created the third party SNT (often a parent) chooses and has complete control over selection of the trust remainder beneficiaries.

Pooled Special Needs Trust

A pooled trust is also funded with assets that are owned by the disabled person, like a first party trust. Pooled trusts are established and managed by nonprofit organizations. The assets in the trust are pooled together for investment purposes, but the organization manages a sub-account for the beneficiary. In a pooled trust, the trust beneficiary can establish the pooled trust sub-account on their own.

Acting Now to Lower Your 2014 Taxes

November 13, 2014,

If you want to lower your overall taxes for this year, now is the time to act. The opportunities to cut taxes on your overall bill are reduced dramatically after December 31. Many taxpayers forget about these opportunities or act too late to take advantage. In addition, Congress has yet to enact any intense tax changes this year, unlike the changes made in 2013. In fact, legislators have not moved on dozens of taxpayer friendly provisions that expire January 1.

Provisions that are Ending

One of the most popular provisions on the chopping block is a law that allows owners of individual retirement accounts who are 70½ and older to give up to $100,000 of their IRA assets directly to charity each year. In addition, a federal write-off for state sales taxes instead of state income taxes and a deduction of up to $4,000 a year for qualified expenses for college or other post-high school education may also end this year.

Hopefully, lawmakers will extend these provisions during this year's lame duck session, and if so, they will likely be retroactive to the beginning of the year. However, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has warned Congress publicly that if they do not enact these extensions before the end of the year it could cause delays in tax refunds this spring.

Key Areas to Consider Reviewing

There are plenty of other issues facing taxpayers, especially given the complexity of the current code, numerous phase-outs, phase-ins, surtaxes and hidden marginal rates. Many taxpayers should consider running their 2014 tax numbers before the end of the year to see how they could benefit from specific strategies. This is particularly important for taxpayers who have had a significant change in their income or a major life event like a birth, death, marriage, divorce, retirement, the sale of a home, or a job change.

Here are some key areas to consider before the end of the year:

Adjusted Gross Income

Phase-outs and surtaxes are attached to different adjusted gross income (AGI) thresholds. One good way to avoid losing benefits or incurred surtaxes is to keep your AGI as low as possible. You can do this by spreading income over more than one year, offsetting capital gains with capital losses, making pretax contributions to a 401(k), IRA or other retirement plan, or by contributing to a health savings account.

Investment Gains and Losses

Be sure to include mutual funds held in taxable accounts because some have announced capital gains distributions before the end of the year. Taxpayers can use realized capital losses to offset realized capital gains, plus $3,000 of ordinary income, every year. Unused losses carry forward for use in the future.

Charitable Giving

All contributions should be made by the end of the year. However, a more tax-efficient move than writing a check is to give the same value in appreciated assets like shares of stock. Donors often get a deduction for the full market value of the asset while avoiding capital gains tax. For a large gift, consider using a donor-advised fund.

Medical Costs

Unreimbursed medical costs are only deductible over ten percent of AGI, or 7.5% for people ages 65 and older. However, some assisted living costs and nursing home costs are typically deductible, in addition to tuition for special schools for students needing special therapies. If you meet the threshold, there are a wide range of other healthcare costs are deductible, as well.

Health Insurance

This is the first year to implement a tax on people who do not have health insurance that meets the Affordable Care Act. To avoid the tax, people need to have been covered by an approved healthcare policy for nine months in 2014. If you were not, the penalty is either a flat amount or one percent of income, whichever is greater.

States Lowering Estate Taxes to Lure Retirees

November 10, 2014,

It's not uncommon to turn on the television and see an advertisement for a state that is enticing visitors to vacation or move there permanently. However, more and more states across the nation are also trying to advertise that they are a great place to die. In 2015, four states are increasing their state-level estate tax exemption, reducing or eliminating altogether the amount of state estate tax that heirs will have to pay.

States Lowering Estate Taxes

As of January 1 next year, Tennessee's estate tax exemption will jump to $5 million from $2 million this year. In addition, Maryland's raised its estate tax exemption level from $1 million this year to $1.5 million next year. Minnesota is increasing to $1.5 million from $1.2 million, and in April 2015, New York's exemption level will rise from $2.062 million to $3.125 million.

And that is not all - in 2016, Tennessee is eliminating its state-level estate taxes. Maryland and New York plan on continuing to increase their exemption levels through 2019, when they will match the federal estate tax exemption level. Minnesota plans on increasing its exemption for state estate taxes by $200,000 every year until it reaches $2 million in 2018.

Reasons Behind the Shift

Legislators in states that have enacted a state-level estate tax are concerned that wealthy retirees will simply move to another state to avoid the taxes, depriving the state of income taxes now. Taxes are the most common reason why retirees move from one state to another, and it is not hard to understand why that is the case.

Hawaii and Delaware have state-level estate tax exemptions that match the federal level. However, fourteen states and Washington, D.C. have lower exemption levels than the federal limit, and their tax rates range from twelve to nineteen percent. New Jersey's estate tax exemption level is only $675,000, which affects heirs that inherit even relatively modest estates.

In addition, seven states have an inheritance tax, which differs from an estate tax. Unlike an estate tax, which is made against an estate before the assets have been distributed, an inheritance tax is paid by the beneficiaries. Maryland and New Jersey have both estate and inheritance taxes with maximum rates ranging from 9.5% to 18%.

What You Should Do

If you live in a state that has an estate or inheritance tax, you can consider moving to a state that does not or that has a high exemption level. If you live in a state that has an estate or inheritance tax and you do not want to move, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about other tax saving strategies for your estate plan. For example, you can take advantage of making gifts during your lifetime to reduce the size of your estate.

In addition, if you already have an estate plan in order, make sure that it is regularly updated to reflect any changes in your state's estate or inheritance tax laws. As more states try to keep or lure more retirees, more changes to the state-level estate tax should be expected.

Safeguarding Your Digital Assets

November 8, 2014,

Part of proper estate planning means safeguarding not only your physical, tangible assets but your digital assets, as well. Many people do not protect these assets for a variety of reasons: a few do not think that it is important, some do not know how, and others simply do not want to think of the prospect of estate planning. However, protecting your digital assets can be easy and doing so will not only give you some peace of mind but will do so for your loved ones, too.

Why You Should Protect Digital Assets

You can do and buy just about anything online nowadays, and most of it you can accomplish with the phone in your pocket. Digital assets are more plentiful than ever, and you might not be aware of how much you have actually amassed in this form. One study by McAfee, a computer protection company, found that the average person has over $35,000 worth of digital assets on various devices that they own.

These assets include everything from sensitive financial records, personal information on social media accounts, music on iTunes and more. Digital estate planning is more than just accounting for what assets you have in digital form; it is also about protecting digital assets that have personal value. And yet, 63% of the participants surveyed in the study admit that they have no idea what will happen to it all once they pass away.

How to Protect Digital Assets

To begin, compile a list of all of your digital assets that includes everything from social media accounts, music playlists, email accounts, financial accounts, online subscriptions, retail accounts, digital payment tools like Paypal or Dwolla, and any other information that can be stored on a computer. Afterwards, put together an inventory list of all usernames and passwords that are connected to those accounts.

Once you have created a list of your digital assets, you also need a safe place to store it. You should consider both online and physical storage - whatever you feel more comfortable with. If you want to save the list online, websites like PasswordBox and apps like Dashlane can consolidate all of your online login information. You can pass on the access to these websites and apps to someone in your estate plan. If you opt to keep a physical list of your digital assets and their associated passwords, make sure that you keep it in a safe place like a safety deposit box and tell someone that you trust where to find the list once you are gone.

Extra Considerations for Digital Assets

While you are compiling your list of digital assets, also take time to look at the policies for your social media accounts and emails. For example, Facebook gives family members of deceased loved ones the option to memorialize that person's account, downloading, or deleting it. Google's Gmail has the option to activate an "Inactive Account Manager" that can give access to an email account to another person or delete it after a certain period of inactivity.

You should also consider whether you would like the executor of your estate to also be the executor of your digital assets. A digital executor can be appointed in your estate plan to manage all of your digital assets once you have passed. By naming a digital executor and specifically listing your wishes for your digital assets, you can ensure that your final wishes for them will be fulfilled.

The Resurgence of the Ethical Will

November 7, 2014,

The ethical will, a document with no legal significance but can be supplemented to a regular will as part of the estate planning package, is meant to share personal lessons and advice with loved ones in addition to passing along physical parts of the estate. While the concept of an ethical will has dwindled in recent decades, the concept has seen resurgence in the technological age.

What is an Ethical Will?

Originally an oral tradition, ethical wills date back as far as 3,500 years. These wills have been used for millennia to pass on life lessons and ethics to the younger generation. Beginning around 1000 A.D., ethical wills began being written down and some still exist to this day.

In the modern age, ethical wills are considered nonbinding documents that are added to a person's estate plan that passes down life lessons and advice to heirs and assigns. They are seen as increasingly important estate planning tools because they can convey the estate owner's closely held values and beliefs. Ethical wills can also help avoid inter-family conflicts that may arise after that person is gone.

Using Technology with Ethical Wills

Many people are now utilizing technology to add a more personal touch to an ethical will. Some are creating ethical will in Microsoft PowerPoint that includes pictures, music, humor, and quotes to emphasize her thoughts. It adds an extra dimension to the younger generations viewing the slideshow that would not be there in a typical, written ethical will. Other people are using similar formats in the forms of videos, DVDs, digital scrapbooks, iPhones, and Facebook pages to create their ethical will for their loved ones.

Benefits of Technology and Ethical Wills

An ethical will allows the estate owner to lay out life lessons and moral philosophies. They can be used to explain family history, the hard work that went into building the estate, and an explanation of how the owner hopes the estate will be used. In order to make these points even more personal, the use of video ethical wills is increasing rapidly.

A video ethical will uses a videographer to film the estate owner and edits down the footage between ten and fifteen minutes. Many people have found that seeing their loved one convey these messages creates a stronger bond and understanding of what is being said. Video wills are also so effective because those watching can hear their loved one's voice, their tone, and see their posture.

What Not to Do in an Ethical Will

An important thing to remember when creating an ethical will is that it is not the proper time to scold or blame someone by reaching out from the grave. It should instead be a heartfelt message to your loved ones, conveying the most important lessons and advice that you feel like you can give. Ethical wills are meant to help improve family communication and lift people's spirits.

In addition, a more practical aspect of ethical wills to remember is that an ethical will should not conflict with your wishes in your standard will or other estate planning documents. Other than that, there's no limit to what can go into an ethical will.

Estate Planning Financial To-Do List

November 5, 2014,

With the end of the year approaching, it is good time to review your estate plan and take care of any last minute financial chores before any new tax and estate planning laws take effect for the following year. Here are eight basic items to check off of your to-do list as the end of the year approaches:

Review your Current Retirement Accounts

With the stock market rebounding this year and other market indexes at all-time highs, it is important to revisit your current retirement accounts and consider reallocating your asset distribution within your retirement accounts. It is also a good chance to see if you are on track with your contributions for the year, especially if your employer matches your contribution to the account. Even if you can't make the maximum this year, consider bumping up your contributions until the end of the year.

Prepare for Open Enrollment

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, employers are trying harder than ever to cut down on healthcare benefits and costs. Consider renewing your usage year to date and your employment-based insurance enrollment materials. Compare and contrast any changes in your coverage.

Update Other Estate Planning Documents

This is also a great time to reflect on any events or life changes that have happened in the last year, and adjust your estate plan accordingly. This could mean adding or removing beneficiaries from accounts, heirs from your will or trust, or adjusting the allocations of the estate between existing members. Remember that an estate plan also includes retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, and other assets besides your will and any trusts.

Set Up Retirement Plan if Self-Employed

Options for self-employed retirement plans include a simplified employee pension (SEP-IRA), a Solo 401(k), a SIMPLE IRA, or a pension plan. If you can establish a plan by the end of the year you can contribute up until you file your annual tax return next April.

Check Social Security Statements

The Social Security Administration recently announced plans to start mailing statements again after stopping the paper mail practice years ago. Make sure to review the statement to ensure that you have been given credit for all of the years that you worked and that you understand all of the benefits that you are entitled to receive.

Review and Update Old Pension and Retirement Accounts

Be sure that you are aware of any and all old retirement accounts or pensions that you had in previous jobs. If you find an old retirement account, consider what you wish to do with the funds. Most will allow you to roll it into a new employer plan or roll it into an IRA.

Review Investments and Strategies

Similar to reviewing the asset allocation in your retirement account, also review your current investment holdings in the markets. Check to see how your assets did in the market, and consider how much risk you want to take with your investments moving forward.

Create or Update the Estate's Financial Plan

Whether you are in the earlier stages of your career or at the twilight of your retirement, you should sit down with an estate planning attorney and financial advisor to review your estate's financial plan. Be sure that they know about your financial goals for you and what you would like to pass to your heirs.

Social Security Recipients Receive Raise

November 3, 2014,

Millions of elderly and disabled Americans receiving Social Security benefits will see a small increase in their government payments next year. The Social Security Administration announced earlier this month that it will be adding a 1.7% cost of living increase for the nearly 58 million Americans receiving federal retirement or disability benefits.

2015 Increased Social Security Benefits

On average, this increase would add $22 per month for retirees, and this makes for the third straight annual increase in Social Security benefits in as many years. The cost of living increases have all been between 1.5% and 1.7%, and this year's increase matches the 1.7% rise in consumer prices in September. This is according to the data released by the U.S. Labor Department last week. According to the American Federation of Government Employees, more than 2.5 million federal government retirees will also receive a 1.7% cost of living increase.

The monthly maximum federal amounts for 2015 are now increased to $733 for an individual, $1,100 for an individual with a spouse, and $367 for an essential person. In general, monthly amounts for the next year are determined by increasing the unrounded annual amounts for the current year by the cost of living increase effective for January of the next year. The new unrounded amounts are then each divided by twelve and the resulting amounts are rounded down to the next lower multiple of one dollar.

According to the Social Security Administration, as a result of this year's cost of living adjustment, the average retired worker's Social Security $22 increased benefit will raise the average benefits to $1,328 per month. This cost of living raise will be the Administration's fourth in a row. Because of a lack of inflation, retirees did not receive increases in 2009 and 2010.

For Social Security recipients who are less than full retirement age and have earnings from work, the annual maximum amount of exempt earnings will rise next year by $240 to $15,720. For every two dollars earned above the maximum, one dollar in Social Security benefits will be withheld. There is no limit on earnings beginning the month a person attains full retirement age.

The Need for the Increase

More than 58 million Social Security retirees, dependents, and survivors will receive the cost of living adjustment beginning with benefits payable in January, while more than eight million Supplemental Security Income recipients will begin receiving it on Dec. 31 of this year. Some beneficiaries receive payments under both programs.

The small increase for cost of living nonetheless limits the ability of beneficiaries, around twenty percent of the U.S. population, to step up spending. According to the AARP, the majority of the people ages 65 and older rely on Social Security benefits for at least fifty percent of their retirement income.

Other Social Security Changes

Some other changes that take place in January each year are also based upon the increase in average wages. Based on the increase, the maximum amount of income subject to Social Security tax also rises from $117,000 to $118,500. Of the estimated 168 million workers who pay Social Security taxes, around ten million people will be affected by this change.

The New Rules for Estate Planning

October 31, 2014,

The federal estate tax is no longer the biggest concern for many people going through the estate planning process. However, this was not always the case. In 2004, any estate worth more than $1.5 million, or whose estate owner made gifts above that limit while alive, were subject to federal tax at top rates of almost 50%. There was extreme uncertainty as the federal tax levels bounced around from year to year and even disappeared entirely in 2010, which made effective planning exceedingly difficult.

Finally, last year Congress set up a new estate and gift tax rate, topped at 40%, and raised the exemption level to $5.34 million per person. Each year that number is adjusted for inflation and the level is expected to be set at $5.43 million per person next year.

New Tax Saving Opportunities

Many people are completely unaware of the new rules regarding estate planning, especially since some advice is completely contradictory to what has been suggested in the past. For example, in the past avoiding the estate tax often meant sacrificing efforts to minimize long-term capital gains taxes, which had a much-lower top rate of 15%. However, now many people who will not owe estate tax can reap substantial tax savings on capital gains by choosing which assets to hold within their estate until death.

Reviewing Estate Plans for More Savings

People that are covered by the new federal estate tax exemption should review their plans and see if there is more room for tax savings. Here are some important factors to consider when reviewing your estate plan:

Reset capital gains:
The federal code allows for a "step-up" in the value that cancels the long-term capital gains tax on assets that a person holds until death. The step-up automatically raises the owner's cost basis for such assets to its full market value as of the date of death, negating the taxes on the appreciated value of the asset.

This means that if the owner holds the same asset until death, the capital gains tax vanishes. The asset will be included in the estate plan at full market value, where the federal exemption level could shelter it from federal estate tax as well, in addition to skipping capital-gains tax of up to 23.8% on any appreciation.

Using the right assets:
To meet cash needs in retirement, it may make sense to take out a loan rather than selling appreciated investments in taxable accounts, especially with the current interest rates so low.

Another possible strategy is to state making withdrawals from traditional individual retirement accounts or other retirement plans. Because such assets are in tax-deferred accounts, they don't get a step-up in basis like other assets that you should keep.

Rethinking trusts:
Up until Congress created a provision known as "portability" in 2011, spouses often needed trusts to provide their estates with the full value of two federal estate-tax exemptions. However, now a surviving spouse can claim the unused portion of a partner's exemption as long as the survivor files Form 706 with the Internal Revenue Service within nine months of their spouse's death.

However, some couples can still benefit from the use of trusts in their estate plan. Many couples in states with death taxes can benefit from the use of a trust, and trusts can be crucial for married couples in which one spouse is a U.S. citizen and the other is not. Some estate planning attorneys are using a tool called an "estate trust." It provides a double step-up on a highly appreciated asset to a married couple after the first spouse dies.

More Advocates Pushing for Stronger Standards of Elder Care

October 29, 2014,

Despite the strong standards that are set by the state and federal governments that are supposed to ensure that our elderly nursing home residents receive good care, a recent federal study found that over one third of all short term patients who enter a nursing home for rehabilitation are harmed. Moreover, the study found that almost sixty percent of the harm caused to these residents could have been preventable.

Federal Nursing Home Study

The report, published by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, studied the number of adverse events occurring in skilled nursing facilities across the United States. The experts discovered that an estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries suffered an "adverse event" during their stay at a nursing home facility, and an additional eleven percent suffered a temporary harm during their time at a facility.

Physician reviews determined that 59% of all of the adverse events and temporary harm were clearly or likely preventable. Much of this preventable harm was attributed in the study to substandard treatment, inadequate monitoring of the residents, and a failure or delay in necessary care.

Over fifty percent of the residents who suffered an adverse event or temporary harm had to return to a hospital for treatment, which cost Medicare an estimated $208 million in one month alone. In total, Medicare spent an extra $2.8 billion on hospital treatment for harm caused by adverse events or temporary harm in nursing home facilities.

Federal Study Recommendations

Because the majority of the adverse events and temporary harm was deemed preventable, the experts of the study concluded the need and opportunity for skilled nursing facilities to greatly reduce the incidents of resident harm. They suggested that other federal agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality begin campaigns to raise awareness of nursing home safety and look to reduce the incidents of harm through methods used to promote hospital safety standards.

In addition, the researchers suggested creating and promoting a list of potential nursing home events that lead to these adverse events in order to help nursing home staff better recognize potentials for harm. Federal agencies were also encouraged to instruct state agencies to review nursing home practices in order to identify and reduce the number of adverse events.

Federal Nursing Home Law

The federal government has enacted laws that are supposed to prevent the number of adverse events in nursing homes and achieve a high level of care for each patient. Part 483 of Title 42 of the federal code, otherwise known as the Nursing Home Reform Law, sets forth strong standards for care in long-term care state facilities.

According to the law, each resident must be provided the care needed to attain and maintain their highest practicable physical, emotional and social well-being. All skilled nursing home facilities are required to have sufficient staff to achieve this, and unnecessary drugs are prohibited. However, with this most recent study released, it may signify the need for stricter rules regarding our senior's nursing home care.

What to Do When You Inherit Your Parent's Home

October 27, 2014,

According to the Boston College Center of Wealth and Philanthropy, the Baby Boomer generation stands to inherit over $27 trillion in the United States alone over the next four decades. A large portion of that wealth is invested into your parent's home, but when you inherit the house it can come with emotional and financial issues. When siblings are involved in the decision making process, deciding what to do with the home can be even trickier.

There are three options that you can elect after you have inherited your parents' home: sell it, move in, or rent it. Each choice comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, emotionally and financially, for you and your siblings.

Selling the House

One of the biggest benefits of selling the home is called a "stepped up basis." This helps heirs avoid paying large taxes on the sale of the home. The stepped up basis of a house is the fair market value on the date of your parent's death. When you sell the home, you only pay capital gains tax on the amount that is above the stepped up basis, and that tax rate can be as high as twenty percent.

The best way to go about selling the home is to look at comparable homes in the area and deciding on a minimum price. You should also make sure that the homeowner's insurance, utilities, and property taxes are paid up and the estate or trust is named as the insured. This negates any issues that may arise between the dates of your parent's death and the sale of the home.

Moving into the House

If you or a sibling is planning on moving into the home after your parent passes away, the best thing to do is establish advance planning through a family legacy book. This book provides clear instruction on how the assets of the house will be administered while the parent is alive in order to avoid sibling squabbles after death.

Another advantage of moving into the home is that it gives you and your family more time to sort through any belongings or family heirlooms left in the home. However, it is important to keep in mind that your property taxes may increase if your parent had a senior citizen tax break for the home.

On the bright side, there is another advantage down the road if you later decide to sell the home. You may be able to qualify for a capital gains exclusion if you have lived in the home for at least two of the last five years before selling. You can pocket up to $250,000 in profit as a single person or $500,000 as a couple without paying capital gains taxes.

Renting the House

If you do not wish to sell the home, but you also do not want to move in, a third option for your parent's home is to use it as rental property. You or your siblings can act as a property manager if you live nearby, or you can hire a private company. Another important thing to remember is to change the insurance to a landlord policy to cover any accidents by guests.

However, having the property as a rental can mean a large tax break for you as a depreciation expense. A certain amount of the property can be deducted every year, and improvements to the home can be deducted, as well.

The Importance of Knowing the Location of Estate Planning Documents

October 24, 2014,

Not only is it important to create an estate plan that documents your final wishes for your estate and medical choices, but it is equally important to remember where those documents are when they are needed. Family members or close friends need to know where they can locate your estate planning documents in the time just before or after your passing. If someone does not know where these documents are kept, it could mean that your final wishes are not fulfilled.

Problems with Lost Documents

Being unable to find estate planning documents can have a drastic effect on your final wishes. One man wished to be buried at Arlington Cemetery after he had died, but his son could not find the paperwork after his passing. The cemetery offered to place his father in cold storage for six months while the son tracked down the proper forms documenting his military discharge. He eventually found it being used as a bookmark in his father's home.

Another example came from a mother who belonged to the Neptune Society, which cremates its members and spreads the ashes out at sea. However, after the mother's passing the Society informed her children that it had no record of their mother's membership and therefore could not accept her body. One child had even seen the paperwork that her mother had of registering with the organization, but it was nowhere to be found. Had the children known where the documentation was, this issue could have been avoided.

How to Avoid Lost Documentation Problems

Communication is vital when creating an estate plan. You should go over your plan with your children, spouse, or other loved ones that will be taking care of your final wishes after you are gone. Distribute copies of vital documentation or give specific details about where it can be found. Be sure to let your heirs know where to find all of your important documentation, including your living will, healthcare proxy and durable power of attorney forms, bank account information, password log-ins, and more.

In addition to those documents, consider also adding information regarding a list of all subscriptions you have, both online and in the mail. Also consider placing tax documents in the same location along with any credit card or debit card information. One final piece to add to estate planning documents is a medical history for you, your spouse, and your parents so that your children and theirs will know if there is a history of any medical issues in the family.

Another recommendation is to place all of these important estate planning documents in the same location. This avoids the problems of tracking down separate pieces of paper in order to put together your entire estate plan. Consider placing all of the documents into a safety deposit box, filing cabinet, desk drawer, or on the computer in a single folder.

Preparing for your own death can be tedious and unpleasant, but if something happened to you would your loved ones know what you have, where it is, and what your wishes are? That is why the creation and location of your estate planning documents are vitally important for you and for your loved ones.