How Do I Address an Estranged Child in My Estate Planning?

For most families, estate planning is a relatively straightforward task, protecting loved ones and preparing to distribute assets. But when parent-child relationships have frayed or fractured, estate planning becomes more complicated and emotional, according to the article from The News-Enterprise titled “Estate planning must account for estranged children.”

The relationship may be broken for any number of reasons. The child may have married an untrustworthy person, have addiction issues, or have made a series of hurtful decisions. In some families, the parents don’t even know why a break has occurred, only that they are shut out of lives of their children and grandchildren.

The reason for the estrangement impacts how the parents address their estate plan regarding the child. If there is an addiction problem, the parents may want to limit the child’s access to funds, and that can be accomplished with a trust and a trustee. However, if the situation is really bad, the parents may wish to completely disinherit the child. Both require considerable legal experience, especially if the child might contest the will.

There are three basic options for dealing with this situation.

One is to leave an outright gift of some kind, with no restrictions. The estranged child may receive a smaller inheritance, but not so small as to open the door to litigation.

Second, the parent may create a  trust provisions with a living trust. The trusts provisions become effective at death, with funds going into the trust shares and controlled by a trustee. The heir will have no control over the assets, which are also protected from creditors, divorces, or scammers.

Third is the option to completely disinherit the child. That way the child will not be entitled to any portion of the estate. The language in the last will must be watertight and follow the laws of the state exactly so there is no room for the disinheritance to be challenged.

There needs to be language that clarifies whether the child’s descendants (grandchildren) are also being disinherited. If the child is disinherited but their children are not, the descendants will inherit the child’s share as if the child had predeceased his or her parents.

Some estate planning attorneys recommend writing a letter to the child to explain the reasoning behind their disinheritance. The letter could be seen as reinforcing the parent’s intent, but it may also open old wounds and have unexpected consequences.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to clarify the steps to be taken in your estate. This is a situation where it will be helpful to discuss the full details of the relationship so the correct plan can be put into place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (July 20, 2021) “Estate planning must account for estranged children”

 

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Can I Learn from the Estate Planning Miscues of Celebs?

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Lessons to Be Learned From Failed Celebrity Estates” gives us some great examples of some poor decisions by stars that left their families in a mess, estate planning-wise. Here are three:

James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame left only 20% of his estate to his wife.  If he left more of his estate to his wife, the estate tax on that gift would have been avoided in his estate. He failed to maximize the tax savings.

As a result, more than half (55%) of his total estate, including a significant art collection, was liquidated and sent to the federal government to pay estate taxes.

Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton was survived by his pregnant fifth wife. His son was born after his death, but because his will failed to anticipate a child being born after his death, his daughter from a previous marriage tried to exclude that baby from his estate.

The California statute would have included his son in his estate as pretermitted heir, but Crichton included language that specifically overrode that statute and excluded all heirs not otherwise mentioned in his will. He failed to update his will with the new child on the way— not anticipating that he would die with an unborn son, which he didn’t mention in the will.

Doris Duke, heir to a tobacco fortune, left her $1.2 billion fortune, including an extensive art and historic real estate holdings, to her foundation when she died in 1993. Duke’s butler was named to be in charge of the foundation.

The consequences?

There were a number of lawsuits claiming mismanagement and costing millions in legal fees.

You can see that even the most famous and the wealthiest people have failed to properly plan for their demise and have inflicted unnecessary pain, headaches and expense of their families.

If you have an estate plan in place, review your existing documents with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that they still accomplish your wishes.

My office is fully open to schedule a consultation to review your plan to ensure it is meeting your goals and needs.

Reference: Forbes (June 18, 2021) “Lessons to Be Learned from Failed Celebrity Estates”

 

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How Do You Survive Financially after Death of Spouse?

The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

 

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