Q: What is estate planning?
When someone passes away, his or her property must somehow pass to another person. In the United States, any competent adult has the right to choose the manner in which his or her assets are distributed after his or her passing. (The main exception to this general rule involves what is called a spousal right of election which disallows the complete disinheritance of a spouse in most states.) A proper estate plan also involves strategies to minimize potential estate taxes and settlement costs as well as to coordinate what would happen with your home, your investments, your business, your life insurance, your employee benefits (such as a 401K plan), and other property in the event of death or disability. On the personal side, a good estate plan should include directions to carry out your wishes regarding health care matters, so that if you ever are unable to give the directions yourself, someone you know and trust can do that for you.
Q: Why is it important to establish an estate plan?
Sadly, many individuals don’t engage in formal estate planning because they don’t think that they have “a lot of assets” or mistakenly believe that their assets will be automatically shared among their children upon their passing. If you don’t make proper legal arrangements for the management of your assets and affairs after your passing, the state’s intestacy laws will take over upon your death or incapacity. This often results in the wrong people getting your assets as well as higher estate taxes.
If you pass away without establishing an estate plan, your estate would undergo probate, a public, court-supervised proceeding. Probate can be expensive and tie up the assets of the deceased for a prolonged period before beneficiaries can receive them. Even worse, your failure to outline your intentions through proper estate planning can tear apart your family as each person maneuvers to be appointed with the authority to manage your affairs. Further, it is not unusual for bitter family feuds to ensue over modest sums of money or a family heirloom.
Q: What does my estate include?
Your estate is simply everything that you own, anywhere in the world, including:
- Your home or any other real estate that you own
- Your business
- Your share of any joint accounts
- The full value of your retirement accounts
- Any life insurance policies that you own
- Any property owned by a trust, over which you have a significant control
Q: How do I name a guardian for my children?
If you have children under the age of eighteen, you should designate a person or persons to be appointed guardian(s) over their person and property. Of course, if a surviving parent lives with the minor children (and has custody over them) he or she automatically continues to remain their sole guardian. This is true despite the fact that others may be named as the guardian in your estate planning documents. You should name at least one alternate guardian in case the primary guardian cannot serve or is not appointed by the court.
Q: What estate planning documents should I have?
A comprehensive estate plan should include the following documents, prepared by an attorney based on in-depth counseling which takes into account your particular family and financial situation:
A Living Trust can be used to hold legal title to and provide a mechanism to manage your property. You (and your spouse) are the Trustee(s) and beneficiaries of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor Trustees to carry out your instructions in case of death or incapacity. Unlike a will, a trust usually becomes effective immediately after incapacity or death. Your Living Trust is "revocable" which allows you to make changes and even to terminate it. One of the great benefits of a properly funded Living Trust is the fact that it will avoid or minimize the expense, delays and publicity associated with probate.
If you have a Living Trust-based estate plan, you also need a pour-over will. For those with minor children, the nomination of a guardian must be set forth in a will. The other major function of a pour-over will is that it allows the executor to transfer any assets owned by the decedent into the decedent's trust so that they are distributed according to its terms.
A Will, also referred to as a Last Will and Testament, is primarily designed to transfer your assets according to your wishes. A Will also typically names someone to be your Executor, who is the person you designate to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, you should also name a Guardian as well as alternate Guardians in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. A Will only becomes effective upon your death, and after it is admitted by a probate court.
A Durable Power of Attorney for Property allows you to carry on your financial affairs in the event that you become disabled. Unless you have a properly drafted power of attorney, it may be necessary to apply to a court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to make decisions for you during a period of incapacitation. This guardianship process is time-consuming, expensive, emotionally draining and often costs thousands of dollars.
There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a present durable power of attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your agent (also known as your attorney in fact); and a springing or future durable power of attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. Anyone can be designated, most commonly your spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend. Appointing a power of attorney assures that your wishes are carried out exactly as you want them, allows you to decide who will make decisions for you, and is effective immediately upon subsequent disability.
The law allows you to appoint someone you trust to decide about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care or Health Care Proxy where you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then ensure that health care professionals follow your wishes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent's decisions as if they were your own.
A Living Will informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by durable medical powers of attorney, on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. In addition to the above documents, you should also sign a HIPAA authorization form that allows the release of medical information to your agents, your successor trustees, your family and other people whom you designate.
Q: What is Probate and why does everyone want to avoid it?
When a loved one passes away, his or her estate often goes through a court-managed process called probate or estate administration where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed. If your loved one owned his or her assets through a properly drafted and funded Living Trust, it is likely that no court-managed administration is necessary, though the successor trustee needs to administer the distribution of the deceased. The length of time needed to complete probate of an estate depends on the size and complexity of the estate as well as the rules and schedule of the local probate court.
Every probate estate is unique, but most involve the following steps:
- Filing of a petition with the proper probate court
- Notice to heirs under the will or to statutory heirs (if no will exists)
- Petition to appoint Executor (in the case of a will) or Administrator for the estate
- Inventory and appraisal of estate assets by Executor/Administrator
- Payment of estate debt to rightful creditors
- Sale of estate assets
- Payment of estate taxes, if applicable
- Final distribution of assets to heirs
Q: What is a Revocable Living Trust?
A properly drafted Revocable living trust (RLT) is a powerful estate planning tool that allows you to remain in control of your assets during your lifetime, have them managed during incapacity, and efficiently and privately transfer them to your loved ones at death according to your wishes.
Sometimes referred to simply as a Living Trust, an RLT holds legal title to your assets and provides a mechanism to manage them. You would serve as the trustee and beneficiary of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor trustee(s) to carry out your instructions for how you want your assets managed and distributed in case of death or incapacity.
In order for the Living Trust to function properly, you need to transfer many of your assets to your Living Trust during your lifetime. The fact that it is "revocable" means that you can make changes to it or even terminate it at any time.
Q: What are the advantages of having a Living Trust?
Like a will, a Living Trust is a legal document that provides for the management and distribution of your assets after you pass away. However, a Living Trust has certain advantages when compared to a will. A Living Trust allows for the immediate transfer of assets after death without court interference. It also allows for the management of your affairs in case of incapacity, without the need for a guardianship or conservatorship process. With a properly funded Living Trust, there is no need to undergo a potentially expensive and time consuming public probate process. In short, a well thought out estate plan using a Living Trust can provide your loved ones with the ability to administer your estate privately, with more flexibility and in an efficient and low-cost manner.
Q: Will I lose any control over my property if I create a Revocable Living Trust?
Creating a Revocable Living Trust and transferring your assets to the name of that trust will generally not affect your ability to control such assets. During your lifetime when you are mentally competent, you have complete control over all of your assets. As the trustee of your trust, you may engage in any transaction that you could before you had a Living Trust. There are no changes in your income taxes. If you filed a 1040 before you had a trust, you can continue to file a 1040 when you have a Living Trust. There are no new Tax Identification Numbers to obtain. Because a Living Trust is revocable, it can be modified at any time or it can be completely revoked if you so desire. Upon your incapacity, the individuals you designate will be able to transact on your behalf according to the instructions you have laid out in the Living Trust. Upon your passing, the Living Trust can no longer be modified and the successor trustee(s) you have designated will then proceed to implement your wishes as directed.
Q: Do I have to transfer all my assets to my Living Trust?
Assets with beneficiary designations such as a life insurance policy or annuity payable directly to a named beneficiary need not be transferred to your Living Trust. Furthermore, money from IRAs, Keoghs, 401(k) accounts and most other retirement accounts transfer automatically, outside probate, to the persons named as beneficiaries. Bank accounts that are set up as payable-on-death account (POD for short) or an "in trust for" account (a "Totten Trust") with a named beneficiary also pass to that beneficiary without having to be titled into your trust. It is important, however, to seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney who can advise on and assist with transferring necessary assets to your trust.
Q: If I transfer title to real property to my Living Trust can the bank accelerate my mortgage?
Federal law prohibits financial institutions from calling or accelerating your loan when you transfer property to your living trust as long as you continue to live in that home. The only exception to the federal law, enacted as part of the 1982 Garn-St. Germain Act is that it does not provide for such protection for residential real estate with more than five dwelling units.
Q: What is business law?
Business law encompasses the many rules, statutes, codes, and regulations that are established which govern commercial relationships and provide a legal framework within which businesses may be conducted and managed. Business law is highly diverse and includes areas such as:
- business formation and organization
- transactional business law (contracts)
- business planning
- business negotiations
- mergers and acquisition
Q: What is a non-profit corporation?
A non-profit corporation is a corporation formed to carry out a charitable, educational, religious, literary, or scientific purpose. A nonprofit corporation doesn't pay federal or state income taxes on profits it makes from activities in which it engages to carry out its objectives. This is because the IRS and state tax agencies believe that the benefits the public derives from these organizations' activities entitle them to a special tax-exempt status.
The most common federal tax exemption for nonprofits comes from Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which is why nonprofits are sometimes called 501(c)(3) corporations.
Q: How often should a corporation hold meetings and update its minutes?
Any time a corporation undertakes a major change or transaction, it should be reflected in its minutes. In addition, meetings of shareholders and directors should take place at least annually if for no other reason than to elect new officers and directors. Failure to adhere to the formality of regular meetings can jeopardize the corporation's ability to shield its officers, directors and shareholders from personal liability for the corporation's actions.
Q: Is it a good idea to have a Buy-Sell Agreement?
Corporations with more than one shareholder should seriously consider a buy-sell agreement. A shareholder's death, divorce, disability or termination of employment can create serious problems for a corporation and its other shareholders. A buy-sell agreement can help minimize these problems by providing for an orderly succession in such plans. Similar provisions are recommended for partnership.
Q: What is involved in a corporate merger?
Like most corporate law, mergers are regulated at the state level. While these laws vary by jurisdiction, many aspects of the merger process are the same across the nation. Generally, the board of directors for each entity must initially approve a resolution adopting a plan of merger that specifies the names of the entities involved, the name of the proposed merged company, the manner of converting shares of both entities, and any other legal provisions to which the corporations agree. Each entity notifies all of its shareholders that a meeting will be held to approve the merger. If the proper number of shareholders approves the plan, the directors sign the papers and file them with the state. The secretary of state issues a certificate of merger to authorize the new corporation.
Each state has its own corporate statutes that govern the procedure for mergers. Furthermore, state or federal agencies may wish to investigate the potential anticompetitive effects of a proposed merger. Because of the requirements and variables involved in merging, a corporation considering a merger should consult a lawyer who is experienced in mergers and acquisitions law.
Q: How can a properly established business entity such as a corporation shield me from personal liability for business debts and obligations?
Personal liability arising from business obligations can devastate the accumulated wealth of a lifetime of work. Personal liability may extend to business losses, but other obligations may also reach individuals, including:
- Damage awards in lawsuits
- Tax penalties
- Back wages and benefit payments
- Limited liability offered by corporations and other business entities shelters business owners from personal liability. Nonetheless, if an owner or director performs certain personal acts, behaves illegally, or fails to uphold statutory requirements for corporate status, he or she may face personal liability despite the corporate shelter.