Two common estate planning failures

(1) Failing to plan for incapacity:

Only 33% of Americans have executed a medical directive (as found by the American Bar Association). AARP (American Association for Retired Persons) reports that 45% of Americans over the age of 50 have a durable power of attorney.

Legal documents to plan for incapacity include a power of attorney, a medical directive and a trust. Even though it is a good first step, a comprehensive estate plan requires these documents and more.

Media mogul Sumner Redstone had an estate estimated to be over $42B, but late in his life a series of conflicts began over his competence and the control of his estate. According to the granddaughter, “the aunt and other family members succeeded in reversing decades of my grandfather’s careful estate planning and poised themselves to seize control of Viacom and CBS.”

Naturally, we all have some expectation of what our life’s work will amount to. The legal system has documents that can be used to support our wishes if we are unable to make decisions, but who decides when we are not able to make them? As difficult and challenging as it is, we might want to consider what indicators we wish to use to trigger assistance. Otherwise, you could find yourself making a good many mistakes before anyone deploys these legal estate documents.

In one case, the California Court of Appeals ruled: “Appellant produced evidence of forgetfulness, erratic, unstable and emotional behavior, and of suspicion, probably delusional at times, on the part of the testatrix. This is of no avail unless it were shown, as it was not, that it had direct influence on the testamentary act.” In essence, the court is saying that the individual displaying these disturbing signs is still capable of making their own financial decisions. After all, we are all entitled to make poor decisions.

In a perfect world we would never have to deal with diminishing faculties or the thought that, at some point, someone else will have to make decisions for us. The truth is, most of us struggle with the timing and triggers that have to do with relinquishing our ability to self-direct or make our own decisions.

Estate planning begins with the basic documents, but effectively planning for incapacity entails much more.

(2) Dying without a will:

Dying without a will doesn’t impact the deceased, but signing a will does make it easier on those left behind. And yet, people who ought to know a whole lot better continue to die intestate (without a will). Famous examples include Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a successful and skilled attorney and yet he left an estate of $110,297 without a will. In more recent times, the entertainer, Prince, died without a will, leaving an estate of $300M. Though Prince’s sister and five half-siblings appear now to be the instate heirs, this would have turned out differently if not for DNA testing. Carlin Q claimed to be the “love child” of Prince and would have inherited the entire estate (!) had DNA testing not proven that he was not a biological offspring of Prince.

It is shocking that over 64% of Americans do not have a will. Yet a will is simple to create. Dying without a will means the estate will be handled by attorneys in front of a probate court. Dying intestate results in delays, higher fees and possible litigation. It surprises many that intestacy can create other messy dispositions based upon the order of death or age of those inheriting assets.

In many states, each child and the surviving spouse will inherit an equal percentage. If a trust is not established, a minor child may be entitled to receive inherited assets by age 18. Ex-spouses may have control of the inheritance until the child reaches adulthood.
In some states, if a married couple with no descendants (children) and no wills are injured in the same accident and one spouse dies prior to the other even by a few minutes the outcome will be that only one spouse’s descendants will inherit the couple’s joint estate and the other spouse’s family will receive no assets. In California, Alaska, Kentucky, Texas, and Wisconsin the state requires that the spouse must outlive the other by more than 120 hours, not just a few minutes, for the assets to pass to the ‘surviving spouse’ and skip the first-to-die family.

Some famous examples include musician, songwriter and poet,  Kurt Cobain, who left a detailed suicide note but didn’t sign a will. As it happened, his wife and daughter were his only heirs and the estate was split in half. Martin Luther King Jr. died without a will leaving his children in a long fight over the estate.

So how does the state decide who manages the assets for under-age children when there is no will? Current state statutes set an order of appointment with the surviving spouse normally being the first person, followed by the closest BLOOD family members. This is determined by relationship, not competence. Think about it. Do you really want anyone to manage the estate for your loved ones just because they are your closest blood relative?

Prince’s estate is an example of how much of his legacy will be wasted as six different heirs without knowledge or competence in the music field are now fighting over how to handle his vast music empire and unreleased songs. Of course, he is gone so at least he doesn’t have to worry about it, BUT his fans will be affected.

Finally, the wishes of the deceased may not be respected without a will. NFL player Steve McNair purchased a million dollar home for his mother to live in, but he retained title to the home. On his death, his wife demanded that the mother pay rent and when she couldn’t, she had to move out! It would have been so simple for McNair to provide a written will stating that his mother could keep the home when he was gone.

Estate planning is a significant part of your overall financial picture. We’ve reserved the month of June to review beneficiaries on your accounts and to encourage you to review your wishes for your estate plan. Our priority in estate planning is to ensure that you are comfortable with the basic estate planning documents (DPOA, will and trust) that will protect you and your family to a very large degree in the event of your incapacity or death.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Death and sepulcher – facing the inevitable

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” In all the years that I’ve worked with clients to create a financial path for their long-term wishes in life and after they are gone, I’ve covered a huge spectrum of topics. Until now, I’ve never asked clients about their “right of sepulcher” (the right of sepulcher means the right to choose and control the burial, cremation, or other final disposition of a deceased person). I recognize that, for some, this topic may seem a tad morbid. The cautionary tales of contentious and messy celebrity funerals that follow (suggested by Amy F. Altman, an associate at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein and Breitstone) may provide you with some perspective and may help you consider how you and your loved ones feel about your right of sepulcher.

  • Litigation surrounding the 2007 death of actor, model and TV personality Anna Nicole Smith made headline news for weeks as her mother and the guardian of her infant daughter battled for the right of sepulcher. Ultimately, the daughter’s guardian prevailed and Anna was buried in the Bahamas next to her late (and recently deceased) son.
  • Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ death in 2002 resulted in a spectacular rift between his children over the disposition of his remains. His eldest daughter argued that Williams’ will clearly stipulated cremation, BUT his son had been given power of attorney and his father’s health proxy and he wanted his father cryogenically preserved. Eventually, the son won out, largely because the daughter could not afford the cost of litigation.
  • Legendary actor Mickey Rooney died in 2014. His estranged wife wanted him buried in a shared plot purchased before they had separated. Rooney’s conservator (court appointed guardian) had other ideas and a costly tug-of-war ensued. In the end, his wife capitulated, recognizing that burial in a Hollywood cemetery befitting Rooney’s status was appropriate.

These cases, regardless of age, underscore the importance and value of discussing with loved ones your preferences for disposition. The laws regarding rights of sepulcher vary widely by state. If permitted under state law, completing a “disposition of remains form” together with advanced directives seems an appropriate start. This will create clarity with respect to the sensitive issues surrounding burial.

As with all legal documents you need to first understand what it is that you really want, which can take a long time to fully grasp and may require delicate discussions with loved ones and personal introspection. Leaving aside what I consider the more important question regarding life support for now, you can first deal with the question, do you want to be cremated, or perhaps cryogenically preserved? Do you want to be an organ donor? Would you like your funeral to take place at home or at a funeral parlor? Do you want a formal service or commemorative event? Though you’ll be gone, these are all options that may well prove to be important (and costly if mishandled) to those you leave behind.

At times, I think that there is so much to do while we are alive that taking time to consider what will happen after we’re gone seems inconsequential and entirely unimportant, but this may not be the case for loved ones. Let me offer an example.

Recently, a client shared that over the course of a dinner conversation with his parents they casually revealed their preference to be cremated. This came as an enormous shock. “Never in a million years,” he said, “would I have predicted that this was my parents actual wish.” This is a man who has made every effort to ensure he is in touch with the real wishes of his aging parents. “I would have got it wrong,” he said, adding “a split second’s worth of conversation set me straight.” He felt like a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders.

The person to whom you give the right of sepulcher may gain much by having even a short conversation about your wishes, regardless of your age.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Understanding Longevity Risk and Your Retirement

The oldest person alive today is Emma Morano of Vercelli, Italy who turned 117 this November. She was born in 1899! Queen Victoria was still on the throne of England and William McKinley was president of the United States. If you’d asked Emma in 1917 if she could imagine living long enough to see 2017, would she have imagined such a long life? Most Americans do not live as long as Emma, but in general we are living longer and healthier lives. The number of centenarians is on the rise. Longevity – long life – can have obvious perks, but also poses a conundrum in terms of finances. To help us plan for longevity we use “longevity risk” to measure the likelihood that you’ll run out of wealth before you’ll run out of life. In our planning we like to ensure that we mindfully set longevity at the right level for each person.

Few, if any of us, have advance knowledge of precisely when our time will come, so questions like this often boil down to statistics. You’ll sometimes hear that the average life expectancy for females is age 83 and age 81 for males, BUT are these appropriate target-end dates for your retirement plan? The truly important challenge is coming up with the best end-dates for retirement that will allow you to enjoy your wealth early while leaving enough assets to comfortably support you later in life.

In retirement planning, the variation in life expectancy can range quite dramatically and yet we find that client expectations generally fall into two categories, (1) those who want to make absolutely sure they don’t outlive their wealth, and (2) those who have a definite expiration date in mind, say 80 years of age, and believe that planning for life beyond that age is simply not relevant or realistic. The latter are often operating on some assumption based on, for example, both parents dying in their late 70s or not long after retirement.

At the risk of sounding morbid, but with the goal of having your retirement plan more fully represent your expected end of life target date, I want you to consider three facts that most often cause people to underestimate their longevity (in turn, this may help you understand why we sometimes encourage you to increase your target-end date):

Life expectancies that are often quoted may not be relevant since they are often calculated at birth. Life expectancy on reaching age 60 or 65 should be much higher than those quoted at birth since some will die before they reach this age. In fact, life expectancy for a 65-year-old, non-smoker is much higher. As an example, a 65-year-old female of average health has a 50% chance of reaching age 88 (see the table below) but once she reaches age 88 she has a much higher chance of reaching age 95.

longetvity_table

  1. Life expectancy is often calculated using mortality rates from a fixed year instead of projected to future expected mortality rates. Social Security Administration (SSA)’s period life tables are based on real mortalities in any given year. Though valuable, since they are real, they underestimate the observed trend for increased survival. As mentioned above, we perceive our survival based on our own anecdotal experiences. The question to ask ourselves, is this correct or is this an underestimation?
  2. Finally, we find that the population on which longevity risk calculations are based may not be appropriate. If we work with an aggregate US population life expectancy (as does the SSA period life tables) we must include a correction for socioeconomic and other factors that are known to impact mortality rates and could underestimate our lifespans. To-date there is evidence to indicate a positive link between income, education, long-term planning, and health. Yes, someone who plans and prepares appears (statistically) to live longer.

In case it is still not clear – let me explain. When planning retirement projections, the length of retirement greatly impacts planning choices (planning for 20 versus 45 years may require different strategies given the same wealth). Considering your specific longevity risk necessitates that we prepare for the contingencies that apply to you. There may be good reasons to target a lower longevity, but for most we will likely need to include, at the very least, a reasonable adjustment for expected increased longevity. This often means distribution of existing assets and thinking about end-of-life questions (a topic most prefer not to address too closely). If you are expecting a longer life, consider accumulating a pool of longevity assets (like some are doing to cover for potential Long-Term Care contingency) or purchasing a longevity annuity (this asset would only be used if you live past a certain age and, therefore, accumulate what are called mortality credits that can provide a good income late in life, but would be lost if you wind up passing sooner).

Obviously, estimations are just that, estimations. Still, a thoughtful scientific approach ought to be the foundation for retirement projections, never speculation or conjecture. Like Emma, some of us will be blessed with a long life, even inadvertently. One way or the other, I want all of us to feel that we’ve had a life well spent, and that will depend largely on how well we’ve planned for possible contingencies in your life.

This educational piece was drawn from my work with clients, www.longevityillustrator.org, the Social Security Administration period life tables, and a recent academic publication by Wade D. Pfau, Ph.D., published in The Journal of Financial Planning, November 2016, vol 29, issue 11, pp 40.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Retirement Income Planning – Spend early or make it last?

During our working years we plan for retirement or financial independence in part by saving maximally and investing in assets that are likely to appreciate.  While we are working and saving for retirement we are in the accumulation phase. As we approach retirement (within about 5 years) we continue accumulating assets and begin the process of distributing those assets to sustain our chosen lifestyle throughout retirement. When we use an income stream from our assets we have entered the distribution phase.

During the accumulation phase we all focus on portfolio returns and tolerate some volatility. We can weather market fluctuations and lack of liquidity since we are not dependent on the portfolio and have our earnings to support our lifestyle. The main objective is to pay required taxes, support our lifestyle, save, and establish a life that encourages us to flourish.

As we approach the time when our assets alone will be used to support our lives, it becomes essential that we address the nuances of how the assets will be deployed – this is termed Retirement Income Planning.

Retirement Income Planning addresses in a pro-active manner how to create a stream of income for our remaining days (using accumulated assets) once our income from work no longer fully supports our lifestyle. Since the retirement time horizon is unknown, we must marry wishes for early retirement or plans for having larger income distributions with having assets last through an unknowable lifespan.

Running out of money is never an option in retirement but leaving money behind is also not acceptable, if it limits your lifestyle. This balance becomes a challenge as lifespans extend and health preservation becomes more successful and expensive. The latest survey shows that couples aged 65 have more than half probability (56%) of at least one spouse living to age 92. Despite these findings many feel they will not live past 80 and yet, if healthy and productive, they might feel very differently once they reach 90. Planning effectively for longevity is essential and must be weighed against the benefits of early spending.

For Retirement Income Planning, we also need to manage tax liability since we want to be sure that assets last as long as possible, particularly tax-deferred assets that are taxed at ordinary tax rates on withdrawal.

A market downturn can more greatly impact a portfolio early in retirement or just before the distribution phase. In retirement, unlike in the accumulation phase, it is much more difficult for the portfolio to recover from a market downturn. A robust retirement income plan must include ways to deliver the needed income regardless of market behavior.

The new reverse mortgages are income distribution tools that retirees can use to access home equity as part of a retirement income plan. For some, they provide at least three advantages early in retirement: reduced tax liability, longer investment time for the portfolio, and enjoyment of their home until retirees are ready to downsize.

For all retirees preserving their purchasing power (not just preserving the dollar amount) is an essential part of an income plan. Failure to include inflation protection is evident when retirees hold little to no significant equity portfolio and the consequences are dire. Though annuity and pensions are useful income distribution tools they fail unless combined with a strategy that protects against inflation. Sustaining purchasing power is even more significant when considering healthcare expenses. Keep in mind that healthcare costs grow due to inflation and also as a percent of annual spending as we age.

Scenarios that use all available tools to address how to best deploy retirement income will provide each retiring person with confidence to spend early and throughout retirement without fear of outlasting their assets.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Handling Finances When You’ve Lost a Loved One

As you would expect, we each respond in our own way to the death of someone close to us. Some focus on getting things done while others find themselves unable to function. The range of reactions spans the full spectrum of emotions. During this time you will also need to know how to begin the process of taking care of the deceased’s finances. The following are a few important points to keep in mind.

First and foremost, before reporting the death to financial institutions you must ensure that you (or the executor) have access to legal/financial documents and to sufficient assets to pay for all expenses associated with this process. Be prepared that if the documents are stored in a safety deposit box it will be sealed when notice of the death is received and not available to anyone that doesn’t have their name on the box. Since some accounts will also be sealed it is also a good idea to determine the source of assets that will be used to cover ongoing expenses and to support dependents while the deceased’s estate is processed. If funds are in joint accounts be sure they will not be frozen once you submit the death certificate.

A surprising tidbit is that you’ll need 20-25 certified death certificates (one original per financial institution) from the County Registrar or Funeral Director or Health Department. Your instinct might have been to ask for one.

As early as possible, engage with your support team (CPA, estate attorney, financial advisor, executors and trustees), then keep the lines of communication open throughout the process of settling the estate. There may be time constraints associated with certain filings and activities related to settling the estate making it doubly important to work together.

A sampling of other financial considerations:

  • Identify all automatic deductions and regular subscriptions to determine which need to be changed or terminated
  • Debt should be handled with care since some will end with the deceased
  • In partnership with the executor, obtain a tax ID for the estate
  • File the necessary tax forms (e.g., Forms 1040 and 1041)
  • Take particular care when handling tax-advantaged accounts and when making decisions on insurance proceeds – check with your team
  • Take a close look at the fine print. Spouses, partners and children may be entitled to survivor benefits

This is only a partial catalog of considerations.

Weighing in on WHO will make decisions for you: Trustees

Trustees:  Consideration for selecting those who will make decisions for you.

A trust or power of attorneys or will are all documents that at their best do what you would do at a time when you’re not available.  The situations can be death or injury or disease.  We can plan for potential contingencies but what we can do best is to choose the right person for those unexpected, undocumented life events.  The trustee or agent is themselves subject to life so how will your choice make your decisions in the midst of their lives.

  1. The ultimate success of your trust’s mission will depend in large part on how your trustee carries out your intentions, making the selection of a trustee one of the most important elements of trust design.
  2. The ideal trustee should possess or have ready access to legal, tax, investment, and administrative expertise, as well as the wisdom to invoke that expertise when needed. The ideal trustee should also be able to deliver that expertise loyally, decisively, and impartially.
  3. Personal confidants, relatives, lawyers, accountants, and banks are all commonly used as trustees. Family members, friends, and business associates are often the most knowledgeable about your intentions and your beneficiaries’ needs, but may have less than optimal skills or temperament for the job. Professionals may offer a stronger skill set but can lack important personal connections to your family. Professionals may also be held to a higher standard of performance than lay trustees by probate judges and executors.

The considerations are many but zero in on a personal contact or a professional representative.  You can opt for a personal confidant or relative in whom you have strong faith, such as a business associate, sibling, or spouse. You can select a professional practitioner whose skills might be especially useful to your purposes, such as a lawyer, planner, or accountant. Or you can designate a bank or trust company to act as a corporate trustee. Each option presents a unique balance of benefits and concerns.The choices in each group are many and only you can make this final critical decision.  Think through scenarios of how your potential representative will handle decisions.

Ideally they will have a well-established relationship with your intended beneficiaries and a detailed knowledge of the unique circumstances in your bequest or life principles. That familiarity can provide the context needed to interpret your wishes in your absence most effectively. It can also lay the groundwork for a strong long-term relationship between the trustee and the beneficiaries. However, someone chosen solely on the strength of personal relationships and intimate knowledge may lack the training or skills needed to act impartially in the face of duress or emotional entanglement. What’s more, a friend or relative acting as a trustee might have a conflict of interest or be unable to devote sufficient time to the duties of trusteeship, and these potential deficiencies may not become readily apparent for some time.  The biggest obstacles is lack of organization and ability to delegate to a professional when needed.

A professional practitioner who has had significant involvement in your family’s affairs may offer many of the same advantages as a personal associate, such as personal relationships with beneficiaries and historical knowledge of unusual situations and special needs. They may also have the professional distance needed to remain dispassionate under difficult circumstances. However, like a lay trustee, an individual professional’s tenure may be subject to their own life and may ultimately be unavailable at some critical future juncture.

 

 

 

Tax Season and the Retiree

Tax Season and the Retiree

There are a lot to contemplate when considering the state in which to retire. Most want to be close to family and friends, the weather to be suitable for them, and what they hope to do in terms of activities.  A consideration this time of year are taxes — one of life’s two certainties and, one often a large expense in retirement.  It is never a good idea to seek out a retirement state based solely on tax burden but it is good to be aware which states fit your plans best for retiement.

So, find out how each state taxes your income and plan accordingly. Also consider how the state taxes your property and your consumption and you might want to consider how it taxes your estate.  That should give you a state tax burden that you’ll need to cover during retirement.

Older Americans who planned for retirement often generate income from several sources during retirement, including income from wages or self-employment; Social Security; pensions; and personal assets, including taxable and tax-deferred accounts. Taxes on those sources of income, mean less money for your care and enjoyment.  But don’t forget state and local property taxes, state and local sales and use taxes. You might pay plenty in property taxes and sales taxes.

Remember, what you save on income taxes in one state you might pay in property taxes or sales taxes. And vice versa. What you save on property and sales taxes in one state you might pay in income taxes – so calculate for your specific retirement situation.

One more note, for those who itemize deductions, there are five types of deductible non-business taxes, including state, local and foreign income taxes; state, local and foreign real estate taxes; state, and local personal property taxes; state and local sales taxes, and qualified motor vehicle taxes.

Your specific tax burden, will depend on whether you can take advantage of these deductions.

The states are listed in order of tax friendliness from an overall tax burden point of view:

1. Alaska:  Alaska doesn’t tax personal income, including Social Security benefits and pension income. And, there’s no state-imposed sales tax. This is not to say that you won’t pay any taxes in Alaska – You’ll pay other types of taxes, such as property taxes.

2. Nevada: This state doesn’t tax income, Social Security benefits or pension income. And its property taxes are reasonable, too. Its sales tax, however, is higher than the national average.

3. South Dakota: The state doesn’t tax individual income, Social Security benefits or pension income. And the overall tax burden is among the lowest in the nation.

4. Wyoming: There’s no individual income tax on Social Security benefits or pension income in Wyoming but property taxes and sales taxes tend to be higher than the national average.

5. Texas: In Texas, there’s no individual income tax. But property and sales taxes tend to be higher than the rest of the nation.

6. Florida: There are plenty of reasons why people choose to retire to the Sunshine state, the low tax burden being among those reasons. There’s no individual income tax on Social Security benefits or pension income with high property and sales taxes.

7. Washington: There’s no individual income tax on Social Security benefits or pension income. But if you plan on spending lots money while in retirement watch out for the high sales tax.

Estate Planning – Don’t forget to prepare the heirs

Estate Planning should include Coaching Heirs
Edi Alvarez

    Estates fail at a rate of 70 percent following their transition to heirs. Why?  Attorneys and financial planners do a good enough job on the assets and the estate but seldom have the mandate or interest to prepare the heirs for the assets they will receive.  Preparing heirs dramatically increases the ability to retain investmented portfolios through the tramatic transition and beyond.

The failure of estates following transition to heirs For many years, estate planning has routinely focused on the “Big Four” issues of taxation, preservation, control and philanthropy. Estate planners do a great job in these four areas, as fewer than 3 percent of estate failures (post-transition) can be attributed to errors by professional advisors, according to research conducted by The Williams Group.

What is missing from the traditional focus on the “Big Four” planning objectives?

. Research clearly shows that the missing element is preparing the heirs for the assets. In fact, the losses that occur during the estate’s post-transition period are driven by unprepared heirs, the lack of a family agreement on the mission of the estate, and the family’s fundamental inability to trust and communicate internally. It is not the scapegoat of estate taxes or the federal government, or even the litigious mentality of the modern day. It is frequently the result of an unprepared generation whose parents have not committed to preparing their heirs to receive and manage wealth in a responsible and competent manner. Lacking both preparation (skills, practice and team support) and motivation (commitment to a mission greater than that of satisfying self), heirs and their bequeathed estates are failing badly, at an astonishing 70 percent rate.

Family coaches that interact with the complete multigenerational family. Their objective is to ready the entire family to work with the advisory professionals by having the family meet and agree upon a mission for the family’s wealth. This is not only mom’s or dad’s mission, but also a multigenerational mission.

Once a mission is agreed upon, the family can move on to work with the family’s advisors to determine the roles that need to be filled (in the post-transition estate), to agree on the qualifications for those roles, and finally to set the observable and measurable standards that must be met to be allowed to continue operating (on behalf of the family) in those roles.

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(1) Family Coaches: The “Missing” Link in Estate Planning By Vic Preisser and Roy Williams. Institute for Preparing Heirs.  http://www.cegworldwide.com/expert-team/001-family-coaches-estate-planning

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes

Don’t forget your state of residence and state estate tax changes when planning your Estate. Many differences between states require that you carefully review your estate and include state rules into your financial plan!  Even when you determine that you are exempt from federal taxes you may still have unexpected significant estate taxes at the state level.  Larger estates are more likely to have both but you’d be surprised that in some states how smaller estates may also qualified.

Nearly half of U.S. states impose an estate or inheritance tax regardless of whether the resident’s estate also owes federal estate taxes. Two states, New Jersey and Maryland, levy both estate and inheritance taxes!

Florida, Nevada, and Alaska are among states generally thought to be attractive place to retire, not only when you are living — because there is no income tax — but also when you die. Neither estate nor inheritance taxes are charged in these states.

Many estates owe taxes to multiple states because the deceased person owned a vacation home or other tangible property such as a boat outside of the state they lived in when they died. Intangible property, such as stocks and money in bank accounts, is taxed in the state the individual legally resided in at death, regardless of where the investments are physically located.

In California, we’ve phased out Estate taxes after 2005 and there is no inheritance tax. Executors of estates of persons who died on or after Jan. 1, 2005, are no longer required to file a California estate tax return.

Imposing just an estate tax, with exemption amounts ranging from $338,333 to $5 million, are Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Ohio, North Carolina, Hawaii, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Illinois and the District of Columbia. Rates vary from 7% in Ohio to 19% in D.C.

Six states collect just an inheritance tax, which is paid by the heirs and not the estate, and generally increases for beneficiaries the more removed they are from being close family members. Rates range from 9.5% to 20% in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska.

New Jersey begins taxing estates at $675,000 and has a maximum rate of 16%, in addition to a maximum 16% inheritance tax on beneficiaries who are not spouses or parents, or children or other lineal descendants. New York has a $1 million exemption for its estate tax, which also tops out at 16%.

Of course, states are always changing tax rules. So be mindful and consult a tax attorney before filing.

Always have a valid WILL

What is a will? Your will is a legal document in which you describe instructions to be carried out after your death. You can direct the distribution of your assets (money & property), and give your choice of guardians for your dependents.  It becomes irrevocable (unchangeable) when you die.

In your will, you can name:
1. Your beneficiaries

2. A guardian for your minor children – a person responsible for your child’s personal care if you and your spouse die before the child turns 18. You may name your guardian, who may or may not be the same person, to be responsible for managing any assets given to the child, until he or she is 18 years of age.
3. An executor – an institution or person to collect and manage your assets, pay any debts, expenses and taxes due (on court approval) and distributed to beneficiaries according to the instructions on the will.  Role has significant responsibilities and is time-consuming – choose the executor wisely.

Does a will cover everything I own? No. Your will affects only those assets that are titled in your name at your death.  The following may not be affected by your will.

Life insurance
Retirement plans
Assets owned as joint tenant with rights of survivorship
“Transfer on death” or “pay on death.”
“Community property with right of survivorship”
– Married couples or registered domestic partners may hold title to their community property assets in their names as “community property with right of survivorship”.  When the first spouse or domestic partner dies, the assets pass directly to the surviving spouse or partner without being affected by the will.

What happens if you don’t have a will? If you die without a will (you die intestate), California law will determine the beneficiaries of your estate.

Contrary to popular myth, if you die intestate everything is not kept by the state but the state may inherit your estate under certain situations.  In California, those married or in a registered domestic partnership will have their community property assets passed to their spouse/registered domestic partner.  They may also receive part of your separate property assets, with the rest going to your children, grandchildren, parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews and other legal relatives.

If you are not married or in a legal partnership, your assets will be distributed to your closest relatives and if your partner dies before you, their relatives may also be entitled to some or all of your estate.  Friends, a non-registered partner or your favorite charity will receive nothing unless you name them in a will.

If you die intestate and your deceased spouse/registered partner have no living relatives then your estate does go to the State of California.

What if my assets pass to a trust after my death? A will can provide that all assets be distributed to trust on your death.  When trusts are created under a will, they are testamentary trusts.  If you have a living trust (a trust established during your life) then your will is referred to as a pour over will.  The purpose of such a will is to make sure that any assets not already in the name of your trust are transferred to your trust upon your death.

How is a will carried out? A will is managed by a court-supervised process called probate.  The executor of a will needs to start the probate process by filing a petition in court seeking official appointment as executor.  The executor can take charge of your assets, pay debts and, with court approval, distribute your estate to your beneficiaries.

Advantages of probate:  Rules that are followed on dispute are defined and quickly executed.
The court reviews the executor’s handling of the estate protecting the beneficiaries’ interest

Disadvantages of probate: It is public – your words and the value of your assets are on public record.
Fees are usually higher because they are based on a statutory fee schedule which can be more than under a trust. It takes longer – usually 6 weeks for each court request

Who should know about your will? You will need to decide who should know about your will – the exact content will be (at minimum) known by your attorney and yourself.  Your executor and close family should know how to access your documents but don’t need to know the details.  Your original signed will, should be kept in a safe place (lawyer’s safe or a fireproof box).

*** THIS INFORMATION IS PROVIDED ONLY AS EDUCATION AND NOT AS LEGAL ADVICE ***