Author Archives: Marc Garlett

What Happens to Your Facebook Account When You Die?

If you’re active on social media, Facebook probably plays a prominent role in your life. And now the social media titan can even play a role in your afterlife.

Today, estate planning encompasses not only your tangible assets—bank accounts and real estate—but your digital assets as well, such as cryptocurrency, websites, and social media accounts. Though social media may seem trivial compared to the rest of your personal property, a Facebook account functions as a virtual diary of your daily life, making it a key part of your legacy—and one you’ll likely want to protect.

Because social media is so new, there are very few state laws governing how your Facebook account should be handled upon your death. Considering this, Facebook itself is in nearly total control of what happens to your profile after you die. And since roughly 8,000 Facebook users die every day, the company has created a few options for dealing with your account once you’re gone:

1. Do nothing
Unless Facebook is notified of your death, it assumes you’re still alive, and your profile remains active indefinitely. While this might not seem like a big deal, your profile will continue to be included in Facebook searches, People You May Know suggestions, and birthday reminders.

Your friends and family likely won’t want to be constantly reminded of your absence, and even worse, ex-friends and/or trolls will be able to post potentially hurtful messages on your timeline. To shield your loved ones from this kind of thing, consider going with one of the other options.

2. Have the account deleted
You can notify Facebook that you’d like to have your account permanently removed from its servers upon your passing. Alternatively, a friend, family member, or your executor can make the same request after your death. This will completely delete your profile and all its associated content from Facebook for good.

Additionally, one of these individuals can request that your account’s content be downloaded and saved before the profile is deleted. Content that’s eligible for download includes wall posts, photos, videos, profile info, events, and your friend list. However, Facebook will not allow any third-party to access or download your personal messages or login information.

3. Memorialize the account
In 2009, Facebook began allowing accounts of the deceased to be “memorialized” at the request of a friend or family member. Once an account has been memorialized, only confirmed friends can see the profile or find it in a search. Your memorialized profile will no longer appear in friend suggestions, nor will anyone receive birthday updates or other account notifications.

When your account is memorialized, the word “Remembering” will be added next to your name on your profile. Depending on your privacy settings, friends and family members can post content and share memories on your timeline. A memorialized account is locked, so its original content cannot be altered or removed, even if an individual has your login info.

In 2015, Facebook created a new policy that allows you to designate a family member or friend as a “legacy contact” to manage your memorialized account. This contact will be allowed to pin a final message to the top of your timeline, announcing your death or providing funeral information. The contact can also respond to new friend requests and update your cover and profile photos. The legacy contact will not be able to log in as you or see any of your private messages.

Preserve your legacy
Since social media and other digital property are such an important part of your life, you should ensure these assets are protected by your overall estate plan.

Furthermore, through our Legacy Interviews, we allow you to create a customized video recording, sharing your values, stories, and life lessons with the loved ones you leave behind. Every estate plan we create includes this component, because estate planning should encompass not only your financial assets and material possessions, but your most precious personal wealth—your wisdom, love, and family leadership. Contact us today to learn more.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Don’t Transfer Ownership of Your House to Your Kids Before You Read This

With the cost of long-term care (LTC) skyrocketing, you may be concerned about your (or your elderly parents’) ability to pay for lengthy stays in assisted living and/or a nursing home. Such care can be massively expensive, with the potential to overwhelm even the well-off.

Because neither traditional health insurance nor Medicare will pay for LTC, some people are looking to Medicaid to help cover this cost. To become eligible for Medicaid, however, you must first exhaust nearly every penny of your savings.

Given this, you may have heard that if you transfer your house to your adult children, you can avoid selling the home if you need to qualify for Medicaid. You may think transferring ownership of the house will help your eligibility for benefits and that this strategy is easier and less expensive than handling your home (and other assets) through estate planning.

However, this tactic is a big mistake on several levels. It can not only delay—or even disqualify—your Medicaid eligibility, it can also lead to numerous other problems.

Medicaid Changes
In February 2006, Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), which included a number of provisions aimed at reducing Medicaid abuse. One of these was a five-year “look-back” period for eligibility.

This means that before you can qualify for Medicaid, your finances will be reviewed for any “uncompensated transfers” of your assets within the five years preceding your application. If such transfers are discovered, it can result in a penalty period that will delay your eligibility.

If you transfer your house to your children and then need LTC within five years, it may significantly delay your qualification for Medicaid benefits—and possibly prevent you from ever qualifying.

A potentially huge tax burden

Another drawback to transferring ownership of your home is the potential tax liability for your child. If you’re elderly, you’ve probably owned your house for a long time, and its value has dramatically increased, leading you to believe that by transferring your home to your child, he or she can make a windfall by selling it.

Unfortunately, if you do that, she or he will have to pay capital gains tax on the difference between your home’s value when you purchased it and your home’s value at the time she or he received it. Depending on the home’s worth, these taxes can be astronomical.

In contrast, by transferring your home at the time of your death, your child will receive what’s known as a “step-up in basis.” It’s one of the only benefits of death, and it allows your child to pay capital gains taxes based on the value of the home at the time of inheritance, rather than the value at the time you bought it.

Debt, Divorce, Disability, and Death

There are numerous other reasons why transferring ownership of your house to your child is a bad idea. If your child has significant debts, his or her creditors can make claims against the property to recoup what they’re owed, potentially forcing your child to sell the home to pay those debts.

Divorce is another problematic issue. If your child goes through a divorce while the house is in his or her name, the home may be considered marital property. Depending on the outcome of the divorce, this may force your child to sell the home or pay his or her ex a share of its value.

The disability or death of your child can also lead to trouble. If your child becomes disabled and seeks Medicaid or other government benefits, having the home in his or her name could compromise eligibility, just like it would your own. And if your child dies before you and has ownership of the house, the property could be considered part of your child’s estate and be passed on to your child’s heirs, creating a problem for you.

No substitute for proper estate planning
Given these potential problems, transferring ownership of your home to your children as a means of “poor-man’s estate planning” is almost never a good idea. Instead, follow a sound estate planning strategy designed to protect your assets while enabling you to better afford whatever long-term healthcare services you might require.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Aretha Franklin Dies Without a Will and Leaves Her Family to Deal With Court and Conflict

Aretha Franklin, heralded as the “Queen of Soul,” died from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on August 16th at her home in Detroit. Like Prince, who died in 2016, Franklin was one of the greatest musicians of our time. Also like Prince, she died without a will or trust to pass on her multimillion-dollar estate.

Franklin’s lack of estate planning was a huge mistake that will undoubtedly lead to lengthy court battles and major expenses for her family. What’s especially unfortunate is that all this trouble could have been easily prevented.

A common mistake
Such lack of estate planning is common. A 2017 poll by the senior-care referral service, Caring.com, revealed that more than 60 percent of U.S. adults currently do not have a will or trust in place. The most common excuse given for not creating these documents was simply “not getting around to it.”

Whether or not Franklin’s case involved similar procrastination is unclear, but what is clear is that her estimated $80-million estate will now have to go through the lengthy and expensive court process known as probate, her assets will be made public, and there could be a big battle brewing for her family.

Probate problems
Because Franklin was unmarried and died without a will, Michigan law stipulates that her assets are to be equally divided among her four adult children, one of whom has special needs and will need financial support for the rest of his life.

It’s also possible that probate proceedings could last for years due to the size of her estate. And all court proceedings will be public, including any disputes that arise along the way.

Such contentious court disputes are common with famous musicians. In Prince’s case, his estate has been subject to numerous family disputes since his death two years ago, even causing the revocation of a multimillion-dollar music contract. The same thing could happen to Franklin’s estate, as high-profile performers often have complex assets, like music rights.

Learn from Franklin’s mistakes
Although Franklin’s situation is unfortunate, you can learn from her mistakes by beginning the estate planning process now. It would’ve been ideal if Franklin had a will, but even with a will, her estate would still be subject to probate and open to the public. To keep everything private and out of court altogether, Franklin could’ve created a will and a trust. And, within a trust, she could have created a Special Needs Trust for her child who has special needs, thereby giving him full access to governmental support, plus supplemental support from her assets.

While trusts used to be available only to the mega wealthy, they’re now used by people of all incomes and asset values. Unlike wills, trusts keep your family out of the probate court, which can save time, money, and a huge amount of heartache. Plus, a properly funded trust (meaning all of your assets are titled in the name of the trust) keeps everything totally private.

Trusts also offer several protections for your assets and family that wills alone don’t. With a trust, for example, it’s possible to shield the inheritance you’re leaving behind from the creditors of your heirs or even a future divorce.

Don’t wait another day
Regardless of your financial status, estate planning is something that you should immediately address, especially if you have children. You never know when tragedy may strike, and by being properly prepared, you can save both yourself and your family massive expense and trauma.

Don’t follow in Franklin’s footsteps; use her death as a learning experience. Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, or need your plan reviewed, call us today.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

 

6 Key Steps For Conscious Co-Parenting: Part Two

Last week, I shared the first part of this series, discussing some of the key steps for conscious co-parenting. In part two, we continue with the final steps.

Conscious co-parenting after divorce is a child-centered process, where both you and your ex-spouse agree to work as cooperative partners for the sake of your kids. This ultimately helps both you and your children adapt in a healthier way.

Such collaboration can be challenging, but last week I offered three ways you can successfully navigate the process. Here  are three additional ways to make conscious co-parenting work for you:

 4. Respect your co-parent’s time with the children

Conscious co-parenting is about demonstrating to your children that you still want the other parent in their lives.

It’s normal to miss your children when they’re away, but it will be easier and healthier for everyone if you don’t do anything that might stop your kids from having an enjoyable time when they’re with the co-parent. This means not scheduling children’s activities during the co-parent’s time, unless you’ve asked them first. It also means respecting their time together by not constantly calling or texting.

 5. Get outside support

When it comes to divorce, the experience is often painful and unsettling. The underlying emotions can be overwhelming if they aren’t processed properly, which can have negative effects on your parenting skills.

Given this, it’s crucial you have support systems in place to move through this phase of life. There’s no single solution, so try a few different supportive outlets to find the one(s) that most suit you.

Whether it’s therapy, support groups, trusted confidants, and/or meditative solitude, you should take this opportunity to practice self-care. For better or worse, our personal identities are often largely centered around our marriages, so it’s perfectly natural to go through a grieving process when they end. Just don’t let the grief become what defines you.

6. Use conscious co-parenting to achieve personal growth
While it may sound paradoxical, divorce can offer a perfect opportunity for personal growth. The steps discussed here can help you adjust to your new life in divorce’s immediate aftermath, but they can also allow you to better express yourself throughout your life overall.

Consciously choosing a cooperative co-parenting relationship is just the beginning. You can bring the same mindful focus to every other area of your life. Treating your co-parent in a compassionate, respectful, and patient manner can provide the foundation for how you deal with all of life’s relationships and circumstances.

By doing this, you can serve as a role model for your children, demonstrating how they can deal with adversity in their own lives. In fact, conscious co-parenting can provide them with an array of vital skills that will strengthen their ability to endure the trials and tribulations they’re likely face in the future.

From custody agreements to alimony payments, there are numerous legal issues that can arise when co-parenting, so be sure you have the legal support you need. And given the fact that your family structure has changed, you’ll want to update your estate plan as well. Please contact us today if we can be of any assistance.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

6 Key Steps For Conscious Co-Parenting—Part One

Committing to an amicable divorce means protecting your children from end-of-marriage related trauma. When the marriage ends in a cooperative manner, divorce can be transformed from a contentious event into one that can inspire growth and healing.

But getting the divorce finalized is only the first step. Where the rubber really meets the road is how you navigate your new relationship as a co-parent.  And co-parenting means both parents must put aside any negativity they may have toward one another, so they can place their children’s needs first.

While this may sound simple, it can be challenging. To help you get started, I’ve outlined six steps that are crucial to a collaborative approach to co-parenting.

  1. Establish a “professional” relationship with your co-parent
    Your marriage with your ex may done, but your relationship as co-parents will last a lifetime. Think of your new co-parenting relationship as a business partnership, where your business is raising successful, well-adjusted children. This professional approach can not only help you become a more effective parent, but it also helps prevent unnecessary conflict over personal boundaries and past problems.

For example, if you schedule a time to pick up the kids, treat it like an appointment with a colleague; don’t blow it off or be late. Be as courteous to your co-parent as you would with any business colleague.

  1. Communicate clearly, cordially, and consciously with your co-parent
    Effective communication is paramount to successful co-parenting. This can present a challenge if poor communication was a primary cause of the divorce. By setting a professional tone, however, you may find communication becomes easier, since it’s free from emotional baggage.

    When communicating, make your kids and their healthy adjustment the focal point. Tailor everything you say in terms of shared responsibility, using terms like “we” and “us,” instead of “you” or “me.” Avoid anything judgmental: stick to the facts and how they affect your children’s well-being.

    Never talk down about your ex in front of the kids, and don’t allow your children to be disrespectful toward your co-parent, either. You never want them to feel like they must choose a side.

Finally, don’t use your children as messengers. Speak directly to the co-parent yourself.

  1. Create a comprehensive parenting plan
    Every successful partnership requires planning, so sit down together and come up with a set of mutually agreed-upon guidelines and routines. This is essential for fostering security and predictability to help the children quickly and comfortably adapt to their new situation.

    The more details the plan includes, the better. Try to anticipate potential problems ahead of time. How will holidays, birthdays, and vacations be shared? How will you resolve major disagreements between co-parents? How will new romantic relationships be handled? Be sure to revisit and update the plan regularly as the kids mature.

    Developing such a comprehensive plan with an ex is challenging, so it’s often helpful to have a third-party present for advice and dispute mediation. As your Personal Family Lawyer, we can bring in trusted colleagues in the community who can help you to develop and maintain conscious co-parenting arrangements while we make sure your estate planning reflects your custody wishes.

Next week, I’ll continue with part two in this series, discussing the other 3 key steps to conscious co-parenting.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Avoid This Major Mistake When Adding an IRA to Your Estate Plan

Some people assume that because they’ve named a specific heir as the beneficiary of their IRA in their will or trust that there’s no need to list the same person again as beneficiary in their IRA paperwork. Because of this, they often leave the IRA beneficiary form blank or list “my estate” as the beneficiary.

But this is a major mistake—and one that can lead to serious complications and expense.

IRAs Aren’t Like Other Estate Assets
First off, the person you name on your IRA’s beneficiary form is the one who will inherit the account’s funds, even if a different person is named in your will or in a trust. Your IRA beneficiary designation controls who gets the funds, no matter what you may indicate elsewhere.

Given this, you must ensure your IRA’s beneficiary designation form is up to date and lists either the name of the person you want to inherit your IRA, or the name of the trustee, if you want it to go to a revocable living trust or special IRA trust you’ve prepared. For example, if you listed an ex-spouse as the beneficiary of your IRA and forget to change it to your current spouse, your ex will get the funds when you die, even if your current spouse is listed as the beneficiary in your will.

Probate Problems
Moreover, not naming a beneficiary, or naming your “estate” in the IRA’s beneficiary designation form, means your IRA account will be subject to the court process called probate. Probate costs unnecessary time and money and guarantees your family will get stuck in court.

When you name your desired heir on the IRA beneficiary form, those funds will be available almost immediately to the named beneficiary following your death, and the money will be protected from creditors. But if your beneficiary must go through probate to claim the funds, he or she might have to wait months, or even years, for probate to be finalized.

Plus, your heir may also be on the hook for attorney and executor fees, as well as potential liabilities from creditor claims, associated with probate, thereby reducing the IRA’s total value.

Reduced Growth and Tax Savings
Another big problem caused by naming your estate in the IRA beneficiary designation or forgetting to name anyone at all is that your heir will lose out on an important opportunity for tax savings and growth of the funds. This is because the IRS calculates how the IRA’s funds will be dispersed and taxed based on the owner’s life expectancy. Since your estate is not a human, it’s ineligible for a valuable tax-savings option known as the “stretch provision” that would be available had you named the appropriate beneficiary.

Typically, when an individual is named as the IRA’s beneficiary, he or she can choose to take only the required minimum distributions over the course of his or her life expectancy. “Stretching” out the payments in this way allows for much more tax-deferred growth of the IRA’s invested funds and minimizes the amount of income tax due when withdrawals are made.

However, if the IRA’s beneficiary designation lists “my estate” or is left blank, the option to stretch out payments is no longer available. In such cases, if you die before April 1st of the year you reach 70 ½ years old (the required beginning date for distributions), your estate will have to pay out all of the IRA’s funds within five years of your death. If you die after age 70 1/2, the estate will have to make distributions over your remaining life expectancy.

This means the beneficiary who eventually gets your IRA funds from your estate will have to take the funds sooner—and pay the deferred taxes upon distribution. This limits their opportunity for additional tax-deferred growth of the account and requires him or her to pay a potentially hefty income tax bill.

A Simple Fix
Fortunately, preventing these complications is super easy—just be sure to name your chosen heir as beneficiary in your IRA paperwork (along with at least one alternate beneficiary). And remember to update the named beneficiary if your life circumstances change, such as after a death or divorce.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Do Your Homework to Ensure Your Kids Are Properly Cared For No Matter What Happens

mother with son doing homework
It’s back-to-school time again, and when it comes to estate planning YOU may have homework to do. As a parent, your most critical—and often overlooked—task is to select and legally document guardians for your minor children. Guardians are people legally named to care for your children in the event of your death or incapacity.

If you haven’t done that yet, you should immediately do so – or come to one of our “Guardian Naming Workshops” and get it done there. Information on our next workshop can be found here.

Don’t think just because you’ve named godparents or have grandparents living nearby that’s enough. You must name guardians in a legal document, or risk creating conflict and a long, expensive court process for your loved ones—all of which can be so easily avoided.

Covering all your bases
However, naming permanent guardians is just one step in protecting your kids. It’s equally important to have someone (plus backups) with documented authority, who can stay with your children until the long-term guardians can be located and formally named by the court, which can take weeks or even months.

The last thing you want is for police to show up at your home and find your children with a caregiver, who doesn’t have documented or legal authority to stay with them and doesn’t have any idea how to contact someone with such authority. In such a case, police would have no choice but to call Child Protective Services.

Closing the gap
This is a major hole in many parent’s estate plans, as we know you’d never want your kids in the care of strangers, even for a short time. To fix this, we’ve created a comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan®, which lets you name temporary guardians who have immediate documented authority to care for your children until the long-term guardians you‘ve appointed can be notified and get to your children.

The Kids Protection Plan® also includes specific instructions that are given to everyone entrusted with your children’s care, explaining how to contact your short and long-term guardians. The plan also ensures everyone named by you has the legal documents they’d need on hand and knows exactly what to do if called upon. We even provide you with an ID card for your wallet and emergency instructions to post on your refrigerator, so the contacts and process are prominently available in case something happens to you.

A foolproof plan
With the Kids Protection Plan®, you’ll name one permanent guardian and one temporary guardian, along with two or more backups, in case the primary isn’t available or cannot serve. And we instruct caregivers to NEVER CALL POLICE IF YOU CANNOT BE REACHED UNTIL ONE OF THE NAMED GUARDIANS ARRIVES AND IS PRESENT WITH YOUR CHILDREN.

Finally, if there’s anyone you’d never want raising your children, we confidentially document that in the plan, preventing them from wasting the time, energy, and assets of the people you do want caring for your children.

With us as your personal family lawyer, you have access to the Kids Protection Plan® to ensure the well-being of your children no matter what. As your kids head back to school, do your homework by contacting us today.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

The Ins and Outs of Collecting Life Insurance Policy Proceeds

Life-Insurance Stock 91024

Unlike many estate assets, if you’re looking to collect the proceeds of a life insurance policy, the process is fairly simple (provided you’re named as the beneficiary). That said, following a loved one’s death, the whole world can feel like it’s falling apart, and it’s helpful to know exactly what steps need to be taken to access the insurance funds as quickly and easily as possible during this trying time.

And if you’ve been dependent on the deceased for regular financial support and/or are responsible for paying funeral expenses, the need to access insurance proceeds can sometimes be downright urgent.

Here is an outline of typical procedure for claiming and collecting life insurance proceeds, along with some of the common hiccups in the process.
Filing a claim
To start the life insurance claims process, you first need to identify who the beneficiary of the life insurance policy is—are you the beneficiary, or is a trust set up to handle the claim for you?

We often recommend that life insurance proceeds be paid to a trust, not outright to a beneficiary. This way, the life insurance proceeds can be used by the beneficiary, but the funds are protected from lawsuits and/or creditors that the beneficiary may be involved with—even a future divorce.

If a trust is the beneficiary, the trustee will need to notify the insurance company of the policyholder’s death and provide them with a certificate of trust and a death certificate when one is available.

From there, the insurance company typically sends the beneficiary (or the trustee if a trust is named as beneficiary) more in-depth instructions and forms to fill out.

Multiple beneficiaries
If more than one adult beneficiary was named, each person should provide his or her own signed and notarized claim form. If any of the primary beneficiaries died before the policyholder, an alternate/contingent beneficiary can claim the proceeds, but he or she will need to send in the death certificates of both the policyholder and the primary beneficiary.

Minors
While policyholders are free to name anyone as a beneficiary, when minor children are named, it creates serious complications, as a minor child cannot receive life insurance benefits directly until they reach the age of majority.

If a child is named as a beneficiary and has yet to reach the age of majority, the claim proceeds will be paid to the child’s legal guardian, who will be responsible for managing those funds until the child comes of age. Given this, in the event a minor is named you’ll need to go to court to be appointed as legal guardian, even if you’re the child’s parent. Therefore we recommend never naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, even as a backup to the primary beneficiary.

Rather than naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, it’s often better to set up a trust to receive the proceeds. By doing that, the proceeds would be paid into the trust, and whomever is named as trustee will follow the steps above to collect the insurance benefits, put them in the trust, and manage the funds for the child’s benefit.
Insurance claim payment
Provided you fill out the forms properly and include a certified copy of the death certificate, insurance companies typically pay out life insurance claims quickly. In fact, some claims are paid within one-to-two weeks of the start of the process, and rarely do claims take more than 60 days to be paid. Most insurance companies will offer you the option to collect the proceeds via a mailed check or transfer the funds electronically directly to your account.

Sometimes an insurance company will request you to send in a completed W-9 form (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification) from the IRS to process a claim. Most of the time, a W-9 is requested only if there is some question or issue with the records, such as having an address provided in a claim form that doesn’t match the one on file.

While collecting life insurance proceeds is a fairly simple process, it’s always a good idea to consult with a trusted legal advisor to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible during the often-chaotic period following a loved one’s death.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Marc Signature Blogs

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 2

men talking 91024

Last week, I shared the first part of this series explaining the powers and duties that come with serving as trustee. Here in part two, I discuss the rest of a trustee’s core responsibilities.

Being asked to serve as trustee can be a huge honor—but it’s also a major responsibility. Indeed, the job entails a wide array of complex duties, and trustees are both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability.

To this end, you should thoroughly understand exactly what your role as trustee requires before agreeing to accept the position. Last week, I highlighted three of a trustee’s primary functions, and here we add on to that list, starting with one of the most labor-intensive of all duties—managing and accounting for a trust’s assets.

Manage and account for trust assets
Before a trustee can sell, invest, or make distributions to beneficiaries, he or she must take control of, inventory, and value all trust assets. Ideally, this happens as soon as possible after the death of the grantor in the privacy of a lawyer’s office. If assets are properly titled in the name of the trust, there’s no need for court involvement—unless a beneficiary or creditor forces it with a claim against the trust.

In the best case, the person who created the trust and was the original trustee—usually the grantor—will have maintained an up-to-date inventory of all trust assets. If not, gathering those assets can be a major undertaking, so contact a trusted legal advisor to help review the trust and determine the best course of action.

The value of some assets, like financial accounts, securities, and insurance, will be easy to determine. But with other property—real estate, vehicles, businesses, artwork, furniture, and jewelry—a trustee may need to hire a professional appraiser to determine those values. With the assets secured and valued, the trustee must then identify and pay the grantor’s creditors and other debts.

Be careful about ensuring regularly scheduled payments, such as mortgages, property taxes, and insurance, are promptly paid, or trustees risk personal liability for late payments and/or other penalties. Trustees are also required to prepare and file the grantor’s tax returns. This includes the final income tax return for the year of the decedent’s death and any prior years’ returns on extension, along with filing an annual return during each subsequent year the trust remains open. For high-value estates, trustees may also have to file a federal estate tax return.

During this entire process, it’s vital that trustees keep strict accounting of every transaction (bills paid and income received) made using the trust’s assets, no matter how small. In fact, if a trustee fails to fully pay the trust’s debts, taxes, and expenses before distributing assets to beneficiaries, he or she can be held personally liable if there are insufficient assets to pay for outstanding estate expenses.

Given this, it’s crucial to work with a trusted legal advisor and a qualified accountant to properly account for and pay all trust-related expenses and debts as well as ensure all tax returns are filed on behalf of the trust.

Personally administer the trust
While trustees are nearly always permitted to hire outside advisers like lawyers, accountants, and even professional trust administration services, trustees must personally communicate with those advisors and be the one to make all final decisions on trust matters.

So even though trustees can delegate much of the underlying legwork, they’re still required to serve as the lead decision maker. What’s more, trustees are ultimately responsible if any mistakes are made. In the end, a trustee’s full range of powers, duties, and discretion will depend on the terms of the trust, so always refer to the trust for specific instructions when delegating tasks and/or making tough decisions.

Clear communication with beneficiaries
To keep them informed and updated as to the status of the trust, trustees are required to provide beneficiaries with regular information and reports related to trust matters. Typically, trustees provide such information on an annual basis, but again, the level of communication depends on the trust’s terms.

In general, trustees should provide annual status reports with complete and accurate accounting of the trust’s assets. Moreover, trustees must permit beneficiaries to personally inspect trust property, accounts, and any related documents if requested. Additionally, trustees must provide an annual tax return statement (Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who’s taxed on income earned by the trust.

Entitled to reasonable fees for services rendered
Given such extensive duties and responsibilities, trustees are almost always entitled to receive reasonable fees for their services. Determining what’s “reasonable,” however, can be challenging. Entities like accounting firms, lawyers, banks, and trust administration companies typically charge a percentage of the funds under their management or a set fee for their time. In the end, what’s reasonable is based on the amount of work involved, the level of funds in the trust, the trust’s other expenses, and whether the trustee was chosen for their professional experience.

Since the trustee’s duties are comprehensive, complex, and foreign to most people, if you’ve been asked to serve as trustee, it’s critical you have a professional advisor who can give you a clear and accurate assessment of what’s required of you before you accept the position. And if you do choose to serve as trustee, it’s even more important that you have someone who can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

Marc Signature Blogs

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 1

 

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Women chatting on sofa

If a friend or family member has asked you to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death, you should feel honored—this means they consider you among the most honest, reliable, and responsible people they know.

However, being a trustee is not only a great honor, it’s also a major responsibility. The job can entail a wide array of complex duties, and you’re both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability. Given this, agreeing to serve as trustee is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and you should thoroughly understand exactly what the role requires before giving your answer.

Of course, a trustee’s responsibility can vary enormously depending on the size of the estate, the type of trust involved, and the trust’s specific terms and instructions. But every trust comes with a few core requirements, and here I’ll highlight some of the key responsibilities.

First off, serving as trustee does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, it’s almost always a good idea for a trustee to seek assistance from professionals in these fields, and funding to pay for such services should already be set aside for this in the trust.

Adhere to the trust’s terms
Every trust is unique, and a trustee’s obligations and powers depend largely on what the trust allows for, so you should first carefully review the trust’s terms. The trust document outlines all the specific duties you’ll be required to fulfill as well as the appropriate timelines and discretion you’ll have for fulfilling these tasks.

Some trusts are relatively straightforward, with few assets and beneficiaries, so the entire job can be completed within a few weeks or months. Others, especially those containing numerous assets and minor-aged beneficiaries, can take decades to completely fulfill.

Act in the best interests of the beneficiaries
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the named beneficiaries at all times, and they must not use their position for personal gain. Moreover, they cannot commingle their own funds and assets with those of the trust, nor may they profit from the position beyond the fees set aside to pay for the trusteeship.

If the trust involves multiple beneficiaries, the trustee must balance any competing interests between the various beneficiaries in an impartial and objective manner for the benefit of them all. In some cases, grantors try to prevent conflicts between beneficiaries by including very specific instructions about how and when assets should be distributed, and if so, you must follow these directions exactly as spelled out.

However, some trusts leave asset distribution decisions up to the trustee’s discretion. If so, when deciding how to make distributions, the trustee must carefully evaluate each beneficiary’s current needs, future needs, other sources of income, as well as the potential impact the distribution might have on the other beneficiaries. Such duties should be taken very seriously, as beneficiaries can take legal action against trustees if they can prove he or she violated a fiduciary duty and/or mismanaged the trust.

Invest trust assets prudently
Many trusts contain interest-bearing securities and other investment vehicles. If so, the trustee is responsible not only for protecting and managing these assets, they’re also obligated to make them productive—which typically means selling and/or investing assets to generate income.

In doing so, the trustee must exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when investing trust assets, otherwise known as the “prudent investor” rule. The trustee should always consider the specific purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other aspects of the trust when meeting this standard.

Unless specifically spelled out in the trust terms, it will be up to the trustee’s discretion to determine the investment strategies that are best suited for the trust’s goals and beneficiaries. But trustees should not invest trust assets in overly speculative or high-risk stocks and/or other investment vehicles. A financial adv

 If a friend or family member has asked you to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death, you should feel honored—this means they consider you among the most honest, reliable, and responsible people they know.

However, being a trustee is not only a great honor, it’s also a major responsibility. The job can entail a wide array of complex duties, and you’re both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability. Given this, agreeing to serve as trustee is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and you should thoroughly understand exactly what the role requires before giving your answer.

Of course, a trustee’s responsibility can vary enormously depending on the size of the estate, the type of trust involved, and the trust’s specific terms and instructions. But every trust comes with a few core requirements, and here I’ll highlight some of the key responsibilities.

First off, serving as trustee does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, it’s almost always a good idea for a trustee to seek assistance from professionals in these fields, and funding to pay for such services should already be set aside for this in the trust.

Adhere to the trust’s terms
Every trust is unique, and a trustee’s obligations and powers depend largely on what the trust allows for, so you should first carefully review the trust’s terms. The trust document outlines all the specific duties you’ll be required to fulfill as well as the appropriate timelines and discretion you’ll have for fulfilling these tasks.

Some trusts are relatively straightforward, with few assets and beneficiaries, so the entire job can be completed within a few weeks or months. Others, especially those containing numerous assets and minor-aged beneficiaries, can take decades to completely fulfill.

Act in the best interests of the beneficiaries
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the named beneficiaries at all times, and they must not use their position for personal gain. Moreover, they cannot commingle their own funds and assets with those of the trust, nor may they profit from the position beyond the fees set aside to pay for the trusteeship.

If the trust involves multiple beneficiaries, the trustee must balance any competing interests between the various beneficiaries in an impartial and objective manner for the benefit of them all. In some cases, grantors try to prevent conflicts between beneficiaries by including very specific instructions about how and when assets should be distributed, and if so, you must follow these directions exactly as spelled out.

However, some trusts leave asset distribution decisions up to the trustee’s discretion. If so, when deciding how to make distributions, the trustee must carefully evaluate each beneficiary’s current needs, future needs, other sources of income, as well as the potential impact the distribution might have on the other beneficiaries. Such duties should be taken very seriously, as beneficiaries can take legal action against trustees if they can prove he or she violated a fiduciary duty and/or mismanaged the trust.

Invest trust assets prudently
Many trusts contain interest-bearing securities and other investment vehicles. If so, the trustee is responsible not only for protecting and managing these assets, they’re also obligated to make them productive—which typically means selling and/or investing assets to generate income.

In doing so, the trustee must exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when investing trust assets, otherwise known as the “prudent investor” rule. The trustee should always consider the specific purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other aspects of the trust when meeting this standard.

Unless specifically spelled out in the trust terms, it will be up to the trustee’s discretion to determine the investment strategies that are best suited for the trust’s goals and beneficiaries. But trustees should not invest trust assets in overly speculative or high-risk stocks and/or other investment vehicles. A financial advisor familiar with trusts can help guide the trustee in following sound and reasonable investment strategies.

Next week, I’ll continue with part two in this series explaining the scope of powers and duties that come with serving as trustee.

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Marc Signature Blogs