Articles Posted in Trust administration

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firefighters-115800_640-300x201California’s recent fires in Butte County certainly got me thinking about my family’s important documents and how best to store them safely. It is so hard to imagine losing everything and having to rebuild from the ground up. Storing our most important documents in a firesafe box suddenly seemed really relevant. I’m guessing that I’m not the only person thinking this way, so, in the spirit of the collective anxious unconscious, here’s a list of what to keep and my thoughts on some best practices to keep these documents safe.

First: What to Keep

Here are a list of the documents that I would advise you to keep. While it is true that many of these are public records (like birth and death certificates or property deeds) having them accessible, and having copies of them, will make it easier after a disaster.

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book-cover-from-amazon-234x300My new book, Every Californian’s Guide to Estate Planning is available now and I’m excited to share it with all of you.

I wrote it because there isn’t a California-specific estate planning book out there, and we, as Californians, have some special things to deal with.

In addition to an introduction to wills and trusts, what probate is and how to avoid it, and how to pick guardians for your minor children, this book also discusses these California-specific issues (and many others):

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black-29972_150On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed a bill that makes huge changes to the American tax system—including the estate and gift tax. As of 2018, individuals can give away up to $11.2 million free of estate and gift tax, and couples can combine that to give away up to $22.4 million! These exemptions are indexed to inflation and scheduled to revert back to 2017 levels in 2026 (unless Congress extends them or makes them permanent at that point).

This sounds like big news, but, to tell the truth, there’s no benefit to most of us. Less than 1% of Americans were subject to the estate tax under the old law–now even fewer of them are. The Joint Committee on Taxation now estimates that there will be only 1800 taxable estates (in the ENTIRE COUNTRY) in 2018, compared to 5,000 under the previous law, and 52,000 in 2000, when the exemption was $675,000.

So, what does that mean for most of us? It means that estate planning isn’t really about minimizing the estate or gift tax any longer. (And it hasn’t been since 2012 for those with $5 million or less.) But that doesn’t mean you don’t need an estate plan.

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digital-assets-fullimage-new-209x300As of January 1, 2017, California has a new law (The Revised Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) that allows executors and trustees to gain disclosure of a person’s digital assets after the original user’s death under certain conditions. This is a good thing because, until now, federal and state law on digital access for executors and trustees made it difficult for executors and trustees to get such disclosure without a court order. Twenty other states have passed similar legislation but, of course, as is often the case, California’s version is slightly different than the model legislation it is based on.

Attempts to pass state laws to make such disclosure easier (in California and in other states as well) ran into difficulties as laws drafted by lawyers (who wanted to make it easy for executors and trustees to gain access to digital assets simply by virtue of the fact that they were executors or trustees) ran into opposition from privacy advocates (like the ACLU) and service providers/tech companies (like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo), who wanted to protect the privacy of deceased users from such disclosure without their consent and who pointed out that any disclosure without such consent violated federal law.

To read more about the legal issues involved and how content providers are (or aren’t) providing online tools to record your consent and to get a digital inventory form that you can use to catalog your digital assets and record your passwords and usernames, download an Ebook that I wrote, Estate Planning for Digital Assets, at my website, www.lizahanks.com .

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bank-building-300x225Most people know that the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) insures bank accounts for up to $250,000 per depositor per covered bank. This insurance was increased from $100,000 to $250,000 in 2008, to reassure people during the chaos of the financial meltdown that started in that year. (This increase was supposed to be temporary, but was made permanent in 2010, as part of the Dodd-Frank Act).

So, if, for example, you are the sole owner of a bank account with $500,000 in it, that account is only insured for $250,000.  If that same bank account is co-owned by your spouse, that account is insured for $500,000 because each owner gets that $250,000 of insurance. For many of us, that’s enough insurance. But not always. I’ve had clients call me after they’ve sold a house, nervous about the fact that they have a large balance on deposit at the bank. What to do?

A living trust can help here. While it is true that everyday bank accounts that don’t accumulate much money (the ones you use to pay bills) are usually not put into a living trust, larger accounts are.  There are two reasons for this: first, large accounts should be held in trust to avoid probate at the owner’s death; second, holding a bank account in the name of a trust means additional FDIC insurance on that account.

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san-francisco-210230_640-300x225I can usually tell when mortgage rates begin to drop because my phone starts ringing with former clients who are trying to refinance.  Often, their loan broker wants them to supply assurances that, if the living trust owns the house, the trust gives the Trustee the power to mortgage the property and use the house as collateral so that the lender’s interest is secure. (That’s a lawyer way of saying that the lender wants to be certain that, if the mortgage isn’t paid, they can take the house.)

Sometimes the lender wants a letter from an attorney certifying certain things are true about the trust — usually that it is revocable, that is valid under California law, and the Trustee has certain powers including the power to borrow. Often, they want this letter right away because it’s holding up the deal.

The issue underlying all of this paperwork is that some (but not all) lenders are uncomfortable because something other than the individuals applying for the loan owns the property (the trust). Here’s an article that explains this in more depth from SF Gate

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shutterstock_226347421 (2)As an estate planner, I get calls often from disgruntled beneficiaries, concerned parents, frustrated Trustees, or distrustful siblings.  Death and money don’t always bring out the best in families. But despite countless books, movies and television shows, rushing to court isn’t always (maybe ever) the best idea for families facing conflict.

Litigation, after all, is designed to create “winners” and “losers,” but family disputes are seldom winner-take-all scenarios.  Worse, the very adversarial nature of litigation can fracture and disrupt family relationships to the point that after the dispute is over, those relationships may be lost, forever. And finally, litigation is both expensive (think six figures to go to trial) and public (think family secrets filed as public documents).

Mediation, a process in which the parties themselves can negotiate an agreement to a family dispute, is a real alternative to litigation for trust and estates conflicts, but not one that many people know about.  Yet. (I aim to change that.)

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nostalgia-499988_640Estate planning is often motivated by the big things. I’m not getting philosophical here. Forget about life and death. On a practical level, what brings families into my office are often the big financial assets–the house, the brokerage accounts, the retirement assets, and a concern that these assets be shared equitably by loved ones. And I, like most estate planners, do my best to write trusts and Wills that do just that.

But, often, it is the little things that can become contentious after a parent dies. From Dad’s stamp collection, to (I kid you not) a parent’s lawnmower, I’ve seen families fight over things that weren’t even on their loved one’s radar when the estate plan was written. Somehow these physical object (in legalese this stuff is known as ‘tangible personal property’) can become the locus of much hurt feeling and much passion, seemingly to become imbued with a deceased person’s essence, or to evoke their memories in a way that money cannot.

Often, fights over tangible personal items becomes especially fraught when there are multiple marriages, with a surviving spouse and children of prior marriages sparring over a loved one’s personal items. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because of Robin Williams.  Less than six months after his death, his third wife and his children from his first and second marriages are involved in litigation over alleged ambiguities in what seems, from a distance, to be a well-drafted and thoughtful estate plan. As reported in the New York Times, here’s some of what they are fighting about:

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questionmarkThe Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled, “The Trouble with Trustees” that outlined the issues that can come up between a trust beneficiary and a Trustee. The article focused on several themes that we’ve seen over the years:

  1. Frustration–a beneficiary is frustrated that they don’t have direct access to trust assets, even though a trust was established precisely to prevent that beneficiary from having direct access to trust assets.
  2. Poor communication – a beneficiary is angry because they don’t feel that they understand how trust assets are being invested or distributed or because a Trustee is not willing to disclose information about the details of a transaction.
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black-29972_150The IRS has extended the deadline for filing an estate tax return for decedents dying in 2011, 2012, and 2013 to December 31, 2014. The purpose of the extension is to provide time for surviving spouses to elect portability on the return, which would allow them to use their deceased spouse’s unused exemption from the federal estate tax. Electing portability means, in effect, that a married couple can combine their available exemptions, potentially saving a family a significant amount of money when the second spouse dies.

For example, if a person died in 2011, and had an estate worth $2 million, and that $2 million was allocated to a Credit Trust (as many of our client’s estate plans would do), their surviving spouse could file an estate tax return, elect portability, and gain an additional $3 million in exemption to be used at the spouse’s death. (In 2011, the available exemption was $5 million, and the decedent used up $2 million by funding the Credit Trust.)

In the above example, an estate tax return would not need to be filed for any other reason (because $2 million wasn’t a taxable estate in 2011), and many families may have missed the opportunity to file a return within nine months of the death (which is the usual deadline) because the decedent didn’t have a taxable estate, so no return was required.  The IRS, however, has extended the deadline for such returns until the end of this year to allow surviving spouses to take another look at the benefits of requesting this additional exemption.