December 2011 Archives

Thinking Beyond the Paperwork--Creating an Ethical Will

December 30, 2011,

When local residents consider creating a New York estate plan they are likely thinking about establishing a trust, drafting a Power of Attorney, and making similar preparations. Taking stock of assets, deciding how to distribute them, creating plans to do so legally, and saving on taxes is the cornerstone of most of these plans. Our New York estate planning attorneys have been helping families do just that for years. But we also help with much more.

For one thing, we have aided in the creation of "ethical wills" as a way to pass on intangible assets. Individuals accumulate much more than bank account funds, real estate, stocks, bonds, or personal property over the course of their lives. In many ways it is "moral assets"--lessons, experiences, and wisdom--which are much more important to pass on to children and grandchild. That is why our New York elder law estate planning lawyers often help families create ethical wills to share these assets, occasionally passing them on while one is still alive. Not only can these wills prove invaluable to family members, but creating them is often a fulfilling exercise for the author. It allows one to learn about themselves, reflect on their life, and affirm their convictions. In many ways it is a spiritual task that provides a sense of completion in addition to helping loved ones "let go" when the time arrives.

A story from the Family Wealth Planning Institute on the same topic talked about things that one should consider when drafting an ethical will. A few of the highlights include:

1. Values: What principles do you hold dear and wish to emphasis to those left behind? How do you balance money and health? In your lifetime, what accomplishments do you hold the most dear and why?

2. Personality: What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of your children? What do you wish for each of them? Were there lessons that they taught you?

3. Community: Do you take pride in a connection to the community? How do you interact with those around you? Are there community traditions that you'd like your children to carry on?

4. Spirituality: Are there any religious or spiritual traditions that are particularly important to you? Are there any tenets which you'd like to see preserved?

5. Legacy: Do your children and grandchildren know about their family history? Are there family stories that you want to take the time to share? What do you want your family to remember most about your time together?

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Farm Assets Protected By Estate Plan

December 28, 2011,

Western Farm Press published a story yesterday reminding readers of the importance of conducting proper estate planning. The publication, geared toward those in the agricultural industry, explained that many farms had been saved that otherwise would have been split up because of savvy planning ahead of time. The story reminded readers of a basic principle that ourNew York estate planning lawyers wholeheartedly endorse. It noted that planning is important regardless of the size of one's estate so that "if something happens to you today, your assets will go where you want them to go, to the people you want to have them."

In the context of farms, it is particularly important to consider the tax implications of asset transfers upon death. It was explained that many farms have been lost when one party in the operation dies, leaving others unable to pay the taxes that come due. Estate taxes are hard to pay without selling the very property that one acquires. Farmers are often asset and land rich, but cash poor. That means that those who inherent a farm are often required to sell the land itself to come up with the cash needed to pay the tax bill. Estate tax issues may not be a problem for those in certain income brackets, but there remains constant volatility in the area. For many families their tax liability could change dramatically from year to year depending on what the laws happen to be at the time that one passes on.

Regardless of estate tax concerns, however, there are many basic estate and inheritance planning issues that are important for farmers to consider. The story suggests that it is helpful to think of one's estate as in either accumulation mode, conservation mode, or transfer mode. The younger generations are often still acquiring assets, while older community members are likely to want to preserve what they have or pass it along. Estate planning helps most clearly with preservation and transfer.

However, it is often more difficult for those goals to be met that some realize. One advocate in the agricultural community explained that "many successful farm families often do a poor job of estate planning." In particular, many of the families fail to ensure that they have proper documents in place and ready to go when they might need them, such as a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. Others fail to keep a plan updated. A sophisticated effort to save on estate taxes one year may be futile if not altered to account for changes in the law down the road.

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Digital Assets May Seem Unimportant, But Families Will Want Access

December 26, 2011,

Modern New York estate plans require consideration of a range of issues that were unheard of even a few decades ago. Of course some of the core aspects remain the same, such as deciding how to pass on tangible assets like the house, car, and personal property. But in this digital age, our New York estate planning lawyers know that complete preparation now must take digital assets into account. Many researchers who have looked into the subject have found that even when an individual does not place any value in their own digital assets, the surviving family members usually have great interest in accessing them.

A story this week from KHAS TV explored the issue. Many community members--including a growing number of older residents--have a wide range of digital data. Interpersonal communication is tracked on Facebook, photos are stored on Flickr, articles are written on blogs, and a range of other information is stored on personal laptops. When a loved one passes on, having access to these sentimental items is something that many grieving family members deem very important. As the story explained, "those things that we sort of use as a vehicle to remember each other by, those things have now become digital." These days many more items are viewed on a screen than a piece of paper.

But when proper steps are not taken, it is not always easy for family members to access those digital items. As many estate planners are realizing, it is increasingly important for access to these digital assets to become integrated in long term plans. Stories continue to accumulate of widows and children who are desperately searching for information about computer passwords in order to get access to important photos, videos, stories, recipes, and other information that exists only in digital form.

To help deal with these issues there are two basic approaches. First, a list of all access information can be kept in a safe place with instructions included in estate planning documents (wills and trusts) indicating how the information can be found. Alternatively, a "digital executor" can be established, which acts just as a regular estate executor in safekeeping the information and dispersing it appropriately when one passes on. One advisor suggests asking "a trusted friend, or maybe even the executor of your estate, to serve as a digital executor, someone that would be digital savvy enough to take care of those assets for you."

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Preparing Children for Wealth Transfers

December 21, 2011,

Our New York estate planning lawyers ran across a Forbes article last week that began with the provocative claim that "70% of intergenerational wealth transfers fail." The story was discussing a new Williams Group study which examined the long-term effects of wealth transfers in 3,250 families. "Failure" in the study was characterized as situations where wealth was dissipated by heirs, often with the family assets becoming a source of disagreement and friction.

The researchers were quick to note that poor professional assistance was not to be blamed; estate planning attorneys, financial advisers, and tax experts were not found to play a role in the wealth transfer problems. In fact the researchers noted that "these professionals usually did well for their clients." Instead, the transfers that ended with problems were usually caused by poor family transition planning. In other words, the authors explained that "no one in the unsuccessful transferring families was preparing their heirs for the multiple kinds of responsibilities they would face when having to take over the reins."

To combat the problems that arise when large sums of wealth are given to unprepared children and grandchildren, it is important to identify long-term lessons and values that must pass on along with the assets. Some suggest identifying a "family mission" and a strategy to ensure that the family mission is carried out. The heirs should understand that mission and be aware of ways to honor it. For example, it is likely that the mission would include a range of philanthropic goals, family business development plans, and other targets. It is helpful for the heirs to have experience practicing those family duties well ahead of time, perhaps by assisting with a few family business matters or charity efforts.

The report suggests that at the center of all successful wealth transfers--beyond proper estate planning--is open and honest communication between families. Many wealthy seniors worry that there will be undesirable consequences if they talk openly with their children about their business, assets, and attitudes about wealth. There is a fear that if children know what is coming to them they will become lazy, take advantage of the situation, or begin feeling entitled to more. However, many experts have found that secrecy breeds problems down the road. This is true for all families regardless of their overall financial situation. It is almost always beneficial to have conversations about family assets and long-term legacies. The holiday season is perhaps a perfect time to do so.

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Some Estate Fights Last For Decades--The MLK Example

December 19, 2011,

Many local families create their New York estate plan with potential family feuds in minds. History is replete with examples of siblings, parents, children, in-laws, and others being torn apart following disagreement regarding the passing of assets at the death of a loved one. Legal challenges following a death are very common. The legal fights are even more likely to occur when a significant amount of assets are involved, there is surprise about how they will be distributed, or inadequate estate planning has been conducted forcing the matter to be decided in the courtroom. Many parents have made the mistake of assuming that "the kids will figure it out" when it comes time to pass on assets. Unfortunately, that exact mindset has led to entire families descended into dispute. The fighting can last for years or, in some cases, even decades.

For example, last week Forbes touched on the case of the famed civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. MLK had not created an estate plan before he died; he did not even have a will. As a result, the distribution of his affairs was left entirely to the courts with the predictable family fighting that ensued--and still continues. Some time ago the King family children engaged in a series of back-and-forth legal battles following the creation of a corporation to manage King's estate. The lawsuits lasted for years before a settlement was finally reached between the children.

However, the possession of certain assets continues to be fought by the corporation (The Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc.). Recently the estate sued the son of one of the Reverend's former secretaries (an old family friend) claiming that the secretary possessed historical documents related to MLK. The documents apparently include handwritten letters, speech transcripts, newsletters, and similar materials. According to the secretary, Dr. King gave her the documents over the years, and she always assumed them to be her personal property. He apparently never asked for them back over the decade and a half that the secretary worked for the Reverend.

The King Estate Corporation recently sued the family when it learned of the existence of the documents. The family friends are hoping to end the legal fight early, because they presumably do not have the funds to support a prolonged (and expensive) legal battle over ownership of the documents. The Estate is arguing that the documents were given by an employer to an employee, but the family friends insist that they were gifts. Resolution of this issue will come down to what Dr. King actually intended when he handed the materials over. Proving one's mental state is difficult at all times, let alone when it relates to events that happened half a century in the past. All of the fighting can be avoided by making ones intentions known explicitly through use of legal documents like wills and trusts.

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Holidays Are Prime Time to Discuss Family Estate Planning

December 15, 2011,

Estate planning is about setting ones affairs in order for the benefit of friends and family. In that way, the holiday season is a natural time to discuss these matters, because it is now when many families are getting together and celebrating. Particularly for families that do not live close together, this time of the year may be the only one when everyone is all in one place. For those in our area, it may be an ideal time for adult children to sit with parents and siblings to talk about creating or updating their New York estate plan.

Of course, one need not spend time delving into the specific details of a plan over turkey dinner, but simply mentioning the topic lightly can be important. As a recent article in The Gazette suggested, if parents do not seem willing to get into the details during the holiday, adult children should simply explain that they'd like to discuss the subject at a later time. However, if parents seem receptive, it is helpful to ask them some basic questions. For example, some parents may already have wills drafted. If so, it is important for other family members to know where it is located and how to access it. If a will is used, children should ask who has been named executor. The same is true when more advanced tools like trusts are used, where successor trustees have to be named. Our New York estate planning attorneys know these seemingly simple choices come loaded with problems. Discussing them ahead of time, when everyone is together, is often a good approach. For example, choosing one child over another for either of these duties may create hard feelings.

Beyond subtle prompting to get certain estate planning affairs clear, the holidays may also be a good time for parents to share exactly how certain sentimental objects will be distributed. Of course, the holiday gathering may be inappropriate if it is known that certain decisions will cause family discord. However, it is never a good idea for family members to learn who is set to receive certain objects only after a loved one has passed, particularly items with emotional attachments. Because everyone is together the holidays may be the ideal time for grandparents to clearly explain what steps they've taken and to answer any questions that family members may have. The input that the elders receive from family members may also prove helpful in case something has been left out of planning. At times adult children can remind parents of certain assets or family issues that should be incorporated in estate planning documents that had originally been left out.

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New York Estate Planning Attorney Discusses Beneficiary Designations

December 13, 2011,

This weekend our New York estate planning attorney Bonnie Kraham had an article published in the Times Herald-Record where she explained the importance of beneficiary designations in New York estate plans. These designations are often less well-known than other aspects of an estate plan, such as trusts, wills, health-care proxies, and powers of attorney. The designation is a contractual document that directs where an asset will go upon your death. They are most often involved in IRAs, annuities, and insurance policies. Beneficiary decisions must be made in conjunction with other aspects of any estate plan to protect assets from outside costs and keep them in the bloodline.

For example, Attorney Kraham discussed beneficiary designations in the context of inheritance trusts. These trusts are increasingly popular and useful legal tools to protect a child's inheritance from the child's creditors or divorcing spouse. If you have an asset in a qualified plan, it is important for the contingent beneficiary designation to be that child's inheritance trust, instead of the child as an individual. Essentially what this does is ensure that the benefit of the inheritance trust applies to the qualified asset. A spouse will typically be named the beneficiary with the child's trust named as contingent beneficiary, ensuring that the funds remain in the bloodline and are protected from outsiders.

Similarly, when your New York estate plan involves use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), it is vital that beneficiaries be considered closely. In particular, Attorney Kraham explains that it is helpful to name the MAPT as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Life insurance policy proceeds are never assets held in the name of the policy holder, and so when those proceeds are passed directly into the MAPT they do not count toward the "penalty period" that otherwise applies to asset transfers within five years of applying for Medicaid. As the article explained, we recently had a client in this exact situation. The man had a $500,000 life insurance policy on his wife with the couple's MAPT named as the beneficiary. If the insurance proceeds were paid directly to the surviving spouse, those funds would have been unprotected from possible nursing home costs. In addition, the MAPT funds can still be used to pay for things like real estate taxes, home insurance, and home repairs. However, this option is only logical when the surviving spouse does not need the life insurance policy proceeds while alive for day-to-day living expenses.

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Tax Litigation Continues to Rage Four Years After Death of Brooke Astor

December 9, 2011,

New York estate planning mishaps and disputes often make headlines when they involve large sums of wealth and larger-than-life characters. Perhaps none has received more publicity recently than that surrounding the "grand dame of New York City society," Brooke Astor. Ms. Astor died four years ago at the ripe age of one hundred and five. However, inheritance and tax issues continue to rage around her estate and they show no sign of nearing a resolution. As discussed in Forbes, seven new lawsuits were recently filed by her estate refuting IRS demands that she owe an additional $62 million in taxes.

It seems that one of the key issues is the overall size of her estate. Every New York estate planning lawyer knows that the total value of an estate is a fundamental factor in evaluating the overall tax burden. A smaller taxable estate means a smaller tax. In some cases, if an estate is below a certain threshold, then certain taxes need not be paid at all. That is why most tax litigation involves dispute between the government and the individual (or their estate) about the total value of taxable assets. In this case, the government claims that the value of Ms. Astor's estate is $223 million, but representatives for Ms. Astor say the figure is around $93 million. Tens of millions of dollars in potential taxes hang in the balance depending on what sum the court ultimately decides is accurate. The tax bill could be anywhere from $35 million to $97 million. The disagreement between the parties centers mostly on charitable bequests (totaling $96 million) that the estate claims can be deducted but which the IRS disputes. In addition, the IRS claims that there was $20 million in lifetime gifts which should have been included. Part of the IRS request includes over $2 million in penalties for the failure to file and pay those gift taxes properly.

The estate admits that certain gift tax returns were not filed. However, many of those gifts were to her son, who was earlier convicted of 14 different crimes related to neglecting her care and stealing from her estate. Many estate planning attorneys have used the drama surrounding Ms. Astor's estate and her son's crimes as an example of what can go wrong when a Power of Attorney is in the wrong hands. As the Forbes article author noted, "the Astor case is a reminder to families that it's important to make sure you get these basic estate and disability planning document right."

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Favorable Tax Rates and Tools May Soon End

December 7, 2011,

This week Barron's--a publication of the Wall Street Journal--discussed how many favorable tax breaks, rates, and regulations are either set to expire or may soon be eliminated by policymakers. It was explained how those at the top of the income ladder have seen a steady stream of tax cuts over the past ten years. Under President Bush the top income tax level was cut, the capital-gains tax was slashed, and dividend tax rules were changed. Our New York estate planning lawyers know that there were also many alterations to trusts, gift rules, and other wealth transfers issues over the past decade.

However, many speculate that changes will now be made in the other direction as policymakers look for ways to tackle growing debt and budget deficits. As one observer explained, "acting now on any kind of tax break is wise given the mood in Congress these days." For example, perhaps that largest benefit set to expire is the $5 million gift and estate tax exclusion. The exclusion allows couples to essentially give away $10 million tax-free. The rates are currently set to revert back to $1 million at the end of 2012 unless legislative action is taken. This alone should be motivation for some families to focus immediate attention on their estate planning.

Other tax-saving tools may also not last indefinitely. For example, Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) are popular for some. GRATs are created for a set term (often two to five years) with an annuity stream from the trust being given to the one who set it up over that term. When the term expires the remainder above a set interest rate goes to heirs. When an experienced estate planning attorney helps create the trust, it can be "zeroed out" so that the annuity stream is set such that there are no gift tax consequences. However, there are currently discussions about changing GRATs. They may soon require a ten year term and zeroing out may no longer be allowed.

Dynasty trusts may also be on the way out. These tools allow families to shelter assets from taxes indefinitely, keeping certain assets inside a family for generations. However, the President has proposed changing the rules such that all estate tax exemptions expire after ninety years. That would essentially remove the possibility of setting up these trusts.

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Art and Antique Succession Planning Should Not Be Overlooked

December 5, 2011,

In many cases the most difficult aspect of conducting proper New York estate planning is ensuring that everything necessary is taken into account. Experienced New York estate planning lawyers usually know what options make the most sense in any given situation, but those plans are less effective if certain aspects of a community members' situation are not accounted for within the overall plan. Few individuals forget to discuss assets like bank accounts and real estate. Fewer take the time to conduct less common planning needs, such as ensuring proper business succession details are in place.

Another often overlooked planning area involves art and antique collections. Last week Wealth Management discussed some tips for art succession planning. The authors noted many families have considerable wealth invested in their antique or art collections, but many fail to take much planning care with these items. The articles notes that "Many don't realize the true value of their 'stuff,' thinking that the antique toy collection, family jewelry, or painting passed down by grandpa have no significant worth for which succession planning is essential." Often that idea is misguided. A new Social Welfare Institute study from researchers out of Boston College found that in a few decades inter-generational asset transfers will total $41 trillion, of which roughly 10-13% will be art and antiques.

Considering that sizeable sum, it is incumbent that these objects be properly accounted for in all estate plans. Failure to do so is a serious preparation mistake. Not accounting for these assets may result in significant tax liabilities. Also, without proper evaluation there may be large discrepancies in the asset allocation to heirs--with one child getting much more than another accidentally. Even worse, heirs may dispose of collectibles at rates much less than their actual worth if they do not suspect something is valuable and are not given any guidance on its worth.

To avoid these problems, residents should follow a few basic steps. For one thing, an up-to-date art and antique inventory is essential to start the planning. For more advanced collectors, specially designed software can be purchased to better keep track of these items. Also, all items should have a qualified appraisal and valuation. All purchase and sale records regarding these items should be maintained adequately. When meeting with an estate planning attorney, it is important to keep them aware of the extent and value of these collections. The advisors will be able to explain what strategies are most appropriate. For example, depending on long-term wishes, an irrevocable trust or charitable remainder trust might be logical options.

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Editorial Calls for Repeal of the Estate Tax

December 2, 2011,

Local residents with a taxable estate over $5 million need to conduct New York estate planning to ensure that they are best positioned to save on estate taxes. The estate tax is essentially a tax on one's right to transfer property at death, and it can result in substantial liability for those with large estates. However, there are seemingly endless political debates about who should be taxed and at what level. The law in this area changes with surprising regularity. For example, in 2004 the tax applied to all those with taxable estates over $1.5 million. A few years later that threshold amount was increased to $2 million. In 2010 the tax was eliminated altogether. While it currently stands at $5 million, it is unclear whether policymakers will change that figure in the coming years. Of course, our New York estate planning attorneys closely monitor all estate tax developments, as these laws are important factors in our work helping residents conduct inheritance planning.

Criticism of the estate tax and the political wrangling around it is common. For example, a Forbes editorial last week called for repeal of the tax entirely. Pointing to the seeming randomness of the rates, the article author noted that "over the past ten years the federal estate tax rules have bordered on the ridiculous." The author explained that planning plays a crucial role in helping residents legally avoid much estate tax liability. Proper planning can actually pay dividends for entire families. He wrote that "with a little bit of planning, not only would the estate of a person who died in 2010 be excludable from estate tax, but the future estate of the surviving spouse would be free of estate tax as well." At the end of the day, the amount of tax paid often hinges on whether or not an individual has prepared a proper estate plan ahead of time or not.

Currently the estate tax generates about 2% of the annual federal revenue. The editorial author suggests that it would be logical to shift the tax system so that the 2% is paid as part of a more progressive income tax system. He specifically suggests increasing tax rates for capital gains and qualified dividend income. It is argued that even slight alterations to these taxes could generate $200 to $250 billion in additional revenue from those making more than $300,000 annually. The goal of this tax shift, claims the proponent, would be to provide a more logical taxation system that is easier to administer without sacrificing much needed public revenue at a time of tight budgets.

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