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Facing the Possibility of Incapacity and the Importance of Planning

Facing the Possibility of Incapacity and the Importance of Planning

Incapacity means that you are either mentally or physically unable to take care of yourself or your day-to-day affairs. Any sort of incapacity can result from serious physical injury, mental or physical illness, mental retardation, or advancing age. It can also include alcohol or drug abuse.

Incapacity can strike anyone at anytime

Even with today’s medical miracles, it’s a real possibility that you or your spouse could become incapable of handling your own medical or financial affairs. A serious illness or accident can happen suddenly at any age. Advancing age can bring senility, Alzheimer’s disease, or other ailments that affect your ability to make sound decisions about your health, or to pay your bills, write checks, make deposits, sell assets, or otherwise conduct your affairs.

Planning ahead can ensure that your wishes are carried out

Designating one or more individuals to act on your behalf can help ensure that your wishes are carried out if you become incapacitated. Otherwise, a relative or friend must ask the court to appoint a guardian for you. It is a public procedure that can be emotionally draining, time consuming, and expensive. An attorney can help you prepare legal documents that will give individuals you trust the authority to manage your affairs.

Managing medical decisions with a living will, durable power of attorney for health care, or Do Not Resuscitate order

If you do not authorize someone to make medical decisions for you, medical care providers must prolong your life using artificial means, if necessary. With today’s modern technology, physicians can sustain you for days and weeks (if not months or even years). If you wish to avoid this, you must have an advanced medical directive. You may find that one, two, or all three types of advanced medical directives are necessary to carry out all of your wishes for medical treatment. It is important to note that you must make sure all documents are consistent.

A living will allows you to approve or decline certain types of medical care, even if you will die as a result of the choice. However, in most states, living wills take effect only under certain circumstances, such as terminal injury or illness. Generally, one can be used only to decline medical treatment that “serves only to postpone the moment of death.” Even in states that do not allow living wills, you might want to have one anyway to serve as evidence of your wishes.

A durable power of attorney for health care (known as a health-care proxy in some states) allows you to appoint a representative to make medical decisions for you. You decide how much power your representative will have.

A Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) is a doctor’s order that tells all other medical personnel not to perform CPR if you go into cardiac arrest. There are two types of DNRs. One is effective only while you are hospitalized. The other is used while you are outside the hospital.

Managing your property with a living trust, durable power of attorney, or joint ownership

If no one is ready to look after your financial affairs when you can’t, your property may be wasted, abused, or lost. You’ll need to put in place at least one of the following options to help protect your property in the event you become incapacitated.

Transferring Ownership

You can transfer ownership of your property to a revocable living trust. You name yourself as trustee and retain complete control over your affairs as long as you retain capacity. If you become incapacitated, your successor trustee (the person you named to run the trust if you can’t) automatically steps in and takes over the management of your property. A living trust can survive your death, but it can be expensive to maintain and administer.

Durable Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney (DPOA) allows you to authorize someone else to act on your behalf. There are two types of DPOAs: a standby DPOA, which is effective immediately, and a springing DPOA, which is not effective until you have become incapacitated. A DPOA should be fairly simple and inexpensive to implement. It also ends at your death. A springing DPOA is not permitted in some states, so you’ll want to check with an attorney.

Holding Your Property

Another option is to hold your property in concert with others. This arrangement may allow someone else to have immediate access to the property and to use it to meet your needs. Joint ownership is simple and inexpensive to implement. However, there are some disadvantages to the joint ownership arrangement. Some examples include (1) your co-owner has immediate access to your property, (2) you lack the ability to direct the co-owner to use the property for your benefit, (3) naming someone who is not your spouse as co-owner may trigger gift tax consequences, and (4) if you die before the other joint owner(s), your property interests will pass to the other owner(s) without regard to your own intentions, which may be different.

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

How Can I Minimize Taxes on My Estate?

How Can I Minimize Taxes on My Estate?

The Estate Tax is a tax on your right to transfer property (cash, real estate, stock, or other assets) at your death. It consists of an accounting of everything you own or have certain interests in at the date of death. An estate tax applies when the value exceeds an exclusion limit set by law. Only the amount that exceeds that minimum threshold is subject to tax. Assessed by the federal government and several state governments, these levies are calculated based on the estate’s fair market value (FMV) rather than what the deceased originally paid for its assets. The tax is levied by the state in which the deceased person was living at the time of their death. 

This question may seem simple, but the answer is not so easy. In fact, there are experts who make their living answering just this question.

How Can I Minimize My Liability?

Estate tax liability depends on the year in which you die and the value of your estate when you die (see the following chart).

Year of DeathValue of Estate on which Estate Tax May Be Imposed (estates in excess of the applicable exclusion amount)
2021$11,700,000 plus any deceased spousal unused exemption amount
2022$12,060,000  plus any deceased spousal unused exemption amount
2023$12,920,000  plus any deceased spousal unused exemption amount

Thus, you can minimize estate tax by reducing the value of your estate until it is below the applicable exclusion amount. There are many ways you can accomplish this. The best way(s) for you may not be the best ways for others and vice versa. (Note: We’re discussing only federal estate tax here. Your estate may also be subject to state death taxes. See a tax attorney for more information about state death taxes.)

Lifetime Gifts

One way is to make lifetime gifts. Be aware, however, that certain lifetime gifts may trigger gift tax. Gifts that do not trigger gift tax include the following:

  • Gifts made to spouses
  • Gifts that are not more than the annual exclusion for the calendar year.
  • Certain payments made for tuition or medical expenses on the behalf of others
  • Gifts up to the annual gift tax exclusion amount of $17,000 (2023)
  • Gifts to a political organization for its use.

In addition to this, gifts to qualifying charities are deductible from the value of the gift(s) made.

See a tax attorney for more information about federal and state gifts taxes.

Another common technique to minimize estate taxes is to transfer assets to an irrevocable trust. Such a transfer may be subject to gift tax on the value of the assets at the time of the transfer, but the assets, plus any future appreciation, are removed from your gross estate. There are many types of irrevocable trusts, each created for a specific purpose. Be aware, however, that as the name implies, an irrevocable trust cannot be revoked or amended.

This is just a brief glimpse of some of the techniques used to minimize estate taxes. For more information, or to discuss how these techniques might apply to your own situation, you should consult a qualified tax attorney.

*sources*: investopedia.com, irs.gov

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

Charitable Giving

Charitable Giving

When developing your estate plan, you can do well by doing good. Leaving money to charity rewards you in many ways. It gives you a sense of personal satisfaction, and it can save you money in estate taxes.

A few words about transfer taxes

The federal government taxes transfers of wealth you make to others, both during your life and at your death. In 2023, individuals can transfer $12,920,000 free of estate, gift and GST (generation-skipping transfer) tax during their lives or at death; married couples can transfer $25,840,000 during their lives or at death. 

You may also be subject to state transfer taxes.

Careful planning is needed to minimize transfer taxes, and charitable giving can play an important role in your estate plan. By leaving money to charity the full amount of your charitable gift may be deducted from the value of your gift or taxable estate.

Make an outright bequest in your will

The easiest and most direct way to make a charitable gift is by an outright bequest of cash in your will. Making an outright bequest requires only a short paragraph in your will that names the charitable beneficiary and states the amount of your gift. The outright bequest is especially appropriate when the amount of your gift is relatively small, or when you want the funds to go to the charity without strings attached.

Make a charity the beneficiary of an IRA or retirement plan

If you have funds in an IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan, you can name your favorite charity as a beneficiary. Naming a charity as beneficiary can provide double tax savings. First, the charitable gift will be deductible for estate tax purposes. Second, the charity will not have to pay any income tax on the funds it receives. This double benefit can save combined taxes that otherwise could eat up a substantial portion of your retirement account.

Use a charitable trust

Another way for you to make charitable gifts is to create a charitable trust. There are many types of charitable trusts, the most common of which include the charitable lead trust and the charitable remainder trust.

A charitable lead trust pays income to your chosen charity for a certain period of years after your death. Once that period is up, the trust principal passes to your family members or other heirs. The trust is known as a charitable lead trust because the charity gets the first, or lead, interest.

A charitable remainder trust is the mirror image of the charitable lead trust. Trust income is payable to your family members or other heirs for a period of years after your death or for the lifetime of one or more beneficiaries. Then, the principal goes to your favorite charity. The trust is known as a charitable remainder trust because the charity gets the remainder interest. Depending on which type of trust you use, the dollar value of the lead (income) interest or the remainder interest produces the estate tax charitable deduction.

Why use a charitable lead trust?

The charitable lead trust is an excellent estate planning vehicle if you are optimistic about the future performance of the investments in the trust. If created properly, a charitable lead trust allows you to keep an asset in the family while being an effective tax-minimization device.

For example, you create a $1 million charitable lead trust. The trust provides for fixed annual payments of $80,000 (or 8 percent of the initial $1 million value of the trust) to ABC Charity for 25 years. At the end of the 25-year period, the entire trust principal goes outright to your beneficiaries. To figure the amount of the charitable deduction, you have to value the 25-year income interest going to ABC Charity. To do this, you use IRS tables. Based on these tables, the value of the income interest can be high–for example, $900,000. This means that your estate gets a $900,000 charitable deduction when you die, and only $100,000 of the $1 million gift is subject to estate tax.

Why use a charitable remainder trust?

A charitable remainder trust takes advantage of the fact that lifetime charitable giving generally results in tax savings when compared to testamentary charitable giving. A donation to a charitable remainder trust has the same estate tax effect as a bequest because, at your death, the donated asset has been removed from your estate. Be aware, however, that a portion of the donation is brought back into your estate through the charitable income tax deduction.

Also, a charitable remainder trust can be beneficial because it provides your family members with a stream of current income–a desirable feature if your family members won’t have enough income from other sources.

For example, you create a $1 million charitable remainder trust. The trust provides that a fixed annual payment be paid to your beneficiaries for a period not to exceed 20 years. At the end of that period, the entire trust principal goes outright to ABC Charity. To figure the amount of the charitable deduction, you have to value the remainder interest going to ABC Charity, using IRS tables. This is a complicated numbers game. Trial computations are needed to see what combination of the annual payment amount and the duration of annual payments will produce the desired charitable deduction and income stream to the family.

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

Wills- – The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan

Wills- – The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan

If you care about what happens to your money, home, and other property after you die, you need to do some estate planning. There are many tools you can use to achieve your estate planning goals, but a will is probably the most vital. Even if you’re young or your estate is modest, you should always have a legally valid and up-to-date will. This is especially important if you have minor children because, in many states, your will is the only legal way you can name a guardian for them. Although a will doesn’t have to be drafted by an attorney to be valid, seeking an attorney’s help can ensure that your will accomplishes what you intend.

Wills avoid intestacy

Probably the greatest advantage of a will is that it allows you to avoid intestacy. That is, with a will you get to choose who will get your property, rather than leave it up to state law. State intestate succession laws, in effect, provide a will for you if you die without one. This “intestate’s will” distributes your property, in general terms, to your closest blood relatives in proportions dictated by law. However, the state’s distribution may not be what you would have wanted. Intestacy also has other disadvantages, which include the possibility that your estate will owe more taxes than it would if you had created a valid will.

Wills distribute property according to your wishes

Wills allow you to leave bequests (gifts) to anyone you want. You can leave your property to a surviving spouse, a child, other relatives, friends, a trust, a charity, or anyone you choose. There are some limits, however, on how you can distribute property using a will. For instance, your spouse may have certain rights with respect to your property, regardless of the provisions of your will.

Gifts through your will take the form of specific bequests (e.g., an heirloom, jewelry, furniture, or cash), general bequests (e.g., a percentage of your property), or a residuary bequest of what’s left after your other gifts.

Wills allow you to nominate a guardian for your minor children

In many states, a will is your only means of stating who you want to act as legal guardian for your minor children if you die. You can name a personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, and a property guardian, who manages the children’s assets. This can be the same person or different people. The probate court has final approval, but courts will usually approve your choice of guardian unless there are compelling reasons not to.

Wills allow you to nominate an executor

A will allows you to designate a person as your executor to act as your legal representative after your death. An executor carries out many estate settlement tasks, including locating your will, collecting your assets, paying legitimate creditor claims, paying any taxes owed by your estate, and distributing any remaining assets to your beneficiaries. Like naming a guardian, the probate court has final approval but will usually approve whomever you nominate.

Wills specify how to pay estate taxes and other expenses

The way in which estate taxes and other expenses are divided among your heirs is generally determined by state law unless you direct otherwise in your will. To ensure that the specific bequests you make to your beneficiaries are not reduced by taxes and other expenses, you can provide in your will that these costs be paid from your residuary estate. Or, you can specify which assets should be used or sold to pay these costs.

Wills can create a testamentary trust

You can create a trust in your will, known as a testamentary trust, that comes into being when your will is probated. Your will sets out the terms of the trust, such as who the trustee is, who the beneficiaries are, how the trust is funded, how the distributions should be made, and when the trust terminates. This can be especially important if you have a spouse or minor children who are unable to manage assets or property themselves.

Wills can fund a living trust

A living trust is a trust that you create during your lifetime. If you have a living trust, your will can transfer any assets that were not transferred to the trust while you were alive. This is known as a pourover will because the will “pours over” your estate to your living trust.

Wills can help minimize taxes

Your will gives you the chance to minimize taxes and other costs. For instance, if you draft a will that leaves your entire estate to your U.S. citizen spouse, none of your property will be taxable when you die (if your spouse survives you) because it is fully deductible under the unlimited marital deduction. However, if your estate is distributed according to intestacy rules, a portion of the property may be subject to estate taxes if it is distributed to heirs other than your U.S. citizen spouse.

Assets disposed of through a will are subject to probate

Probate is the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be expensive and time consuming, and probate records are available to the public. Several factors can affect the length of probate, including the size and complexity of the estate, challenges to the will or its provisions, creditor claims against the estate, state probate laws, the state court system, and tax issues. Owning property in more than one state can result in multiple probate proceedings. This is known as ancillary probate. Generally, real estate is probated in the state in which it is located, and personal property is probated in the state in which you are domiciled (i.e., reside) at the time of your death.

Will provisions can be challenged in court

Although it doesn’t happen often, the validity of your will can be challenged, usually by an unhappy beneficiary or a disinherited heir. Some common claims include:

  • You lacked testamentary capacity when you signed the will
  • You were unduly influenced by another individual when you drew up the will
  • The will was forged or was otherwise improperly executed
  • The will was revoked

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

Designating a Beneficiary for Life Insurance

Designating a Beneficiary for Life Insurance

A beneficiary is the person or entity you name (i.e., designate) to receive the death benefits of a life insurance policy. Some states require that your beneficiary have an insurable interest in your life or be related to you (at least at the time the contract is initiated), while others have no such restriction.

If you do not want to name an individual or entity as your beneficiary, you can name your own estate. The proceeds will then be distributed with your other assets according to your will. You should note, however, that naming your estate as beneficiary may have disadvantages. For example, in many states, life insurance proceeds are exempt from the claims of your creditors when there is a named beneficiary, but not when your estate is your named beneficiary.

Revocable and irrevocable beneficiaries

The beneficiary can be either revocable or irrevocable. A revocable beneficiary can be changed at any time. Once named, an irrevocable beneficiary cannot be changed without his or her consent.

Primary and contingent beneficiaries

You can name as many beneficiaries as you want, subject to procedures set in the policy. The beneficiary to whom the proceeds go first is called the primary beneficiary. Secondary or contingent beneficiaries are entitled to the proceeds only if they survive both you and the primary beneficiary. It’s important to name a contingent beneficiary because if you and your primary beneficiary die simultaneously, the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act provides that the beneficiary will be presumed to have died first. By naming a contingent beneficiary, you avoid having the proceeds flow to your estate.

Multiple beneficiaries

You may name multiple beneficiaries if you choose. There are no legal restrictions (and few company restrictions) on the number of beneficiaries you can designate.

If you name multiple beneficiaries, you must also specify how much each beneficiary will receive. You may not want to give each beneficiary an equal share, so you must state how the proceeds should be divided. Because of the numerous interest and dividend adjustments that the insurance company must make, the death benefit check often does not equal the policy’s face value. So, it’s wise to distribute percentage shares to your beneficiaries, or to designate one beneficiary to receive any leftover balance.

How do you name or change a beneficiary?

When you buy life insurance, you will indicate your beneficiaries on the application. When changing a beneficiary, the insurer will provide you with a beneficiary designation form. Unless one or more of the beneficiaries is irrevocable, you only need to list the names of the beneficiaries, sign the form, and date it. This will automatically revoke any previous designations by writing this in on the change-of-beneficiary form. Be sure to check and update your beneficiary designations upon certain life events (e.g., divorce, remarriage, the birth of children).

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can change your beneficiary in your will. A change of beneficiary made in your will does not override the beneficiary designation of your life insurance policy. If you want to change the beneficiary of your life insurance, execute a change-of-beneficiary form. Do not rely on your will to do so.

Why designating the proper beneficiary is important

You should name both primary and contingent beneficiaries. If you have not named one or more beneficiaries, the proceeds pass to your estate at your death. Proceeds paid to your estate are subject to probate and will incur all of the expenses and delays associated with settling an estate. But named beneficiaries receive proceeds almost immediately after your death, and probate is bypassed. In addition, proceeds passing to your estate are subject to the claims of creditors. Most states exempt life insurance proceeds from creditors when there’s a named beneficiary.

Other considerations when designating beneficiaries

If you become incompetent, you cannot name or change a beneficiary. And you’re incompetent only if you are legally declared to be so. The test is similar to the test regarding the making of wills or any other legal contract (i.e., do you have the capacity to understand your actions?).

Do not name a minor as a beneficiary unless you also appoint a guardian in your will or use a trust. If you do name a minor as a beneficiary, and you do not appoint a guardian or use a trust, the probate court will appoint a guardian for you. In states that have adopted the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, it’s possible to create a custodial account of the minor after the death of the insured to receive the child’s share of the death proceeds.

Your right to change a beneficiary may be limited by a divorce decree or settlement agreement. In some cases, divorce allows a policyowner to change the beneficiary, even if the beneficiary is irrevocable. In other cases, the policyowner may be prohibited from changing the beneficiary or may be required to name a divorced spouse or children as irrevocable beneficiaries.

If you’re a minor

In some states, if you (the insured) are a minor, you can name only a certain class of persons as beneficiaries. That class generally includes your spouse, parents, grandparents, and brothers or sisters. Your parents or legal guardians will also have to sign the application for life insurance.

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

Bypassing Probate

Bypassing Probate

You may have heard about the horrors of probate, but in truth, probate has gotten an undeservedly bad reputation, especially in recent years. If you bypass probate, your estate will go to your beneficiaries without any court proceeding, and you may save a certain amount of time and expenses. However, there is usually little reason for most people to avoid probate today. States continue to revise their probate laws, making them more consumer friendly, particularly for small estates. For most modestly sized estates, the probate process now costs little. In fact, there are some good reasons to distribute your property by will. Decisions are binding and have legal finality once your will is probated. Creditors who fail to file claims against your estate within a specific amount of time–usually six months after receiving notice–are out of luck.

However, some major drawbacks to probate do exist, including the time it can take. The process averages six to nine months to complete but may take up to two years or more for some complex estates, tying up the assets that your family may need immediately. Also, for a larger estate, the cost may be as high as 5 percent of the estate’s value.

If you feel that the size and complexity of your estate warrant exploring alternatives to probate, you may want to consider one or more of the following:

Transfer your assets to a revocable living trust

A trust is like a basket that holds your assets. A revocable living trust (also known as an inter vivos trust) is flexible enough to include almost any asset that you own. While you are living, you can act as the trustee and can add or remove property as you see fit. You can also terminate or amend the trust at any time. When you die, your successor trustee distributes the trust assets to the trust beneficiaries, according to the trust agreement. Trusts require a significant amount of paperwork, are costly to create and maintain, and usually require a lawyer to draw up the trust documents. Also, a revocable living trust does not shield your estate from your creditors, creditors of your estate, or estate taxes.

Own property as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship

Assets owned as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship pass automatically to the surviving joint owner(s) at your death. To establish joint ownership, you may need to record new real estate deeds, titles for your car or boat, stock and bond certificates, statements of account for mutual funds, registration cards for your bank accounts, and other assets. This costs little and usually does not require a lawyer. Some drawbacks are that the joint owner has immediate access to your property, and your joint owner’s creditors may reach the jointly held property.

Designate beneficiaries

Assets pass outside of probate if you establish payable-on-death provisions for your savings accounts and CDs. Ask your agent to set up transfer-on-death provisions for brokerage accounts containing stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. Your retirement accounts, such as profit-sharing plans, 401(k)s, and IRAs can also pass along to designated beneficiaries. Finally, life insurance death proceeds will avoid probate, provided you name a beneficiary other than your estate.

Make lifetime gifts

Another way to avoid probate is to simply give away your property to your beneficiaries while you are living. Carefully planned gifting can also free those assets from gift and estate taxes. The following are usually nontaxable gifts:

  • Gifts to your spouse
  • Gifts to qualified charities
  • Gifts totaling $16,000 (2022 figure) or less per person, per year ($32,000 if you and your spouse can split the gifts)
  • Tuition payments on behalf of an individual directly to an educational institution
  • Medical care expenses paid directly to the provider on behalf of an individual

Other ways to bypass or minimize probate

If your estate is small enough to meet state guidelines, your beneficiaries can simply claim your assets by presenting a notarized affidavit. About half of the states set a limit of $10,000 to $20,000 of the qualified estate value; most of the other states allow as much as $100,000. You can generally deduct estate expenses from your qualified estate value, such as taxes, debts, loans, or family allowance payments, plus the value of any other assets that pass outside probate (e.g., a home jointly owned with a spouse). Real estate is usually disqualified from claims by affidavit. Therefore, your estate may qualify even if it is fairly large. Expect the process to take 30 to 45 days. Another method is for your executor to file for summary, or simplified probate. This streamlined process is generally a paper filing only, requiring no attorney. States vary widely regarding the allowable size of an estate for simplified probate.

Disclosure:The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Sterling Group United recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.