A complete financial plan has many moving parts, many of which are handled by separate financial professionals. A financial advisor likely does not sell property and casualty insurance, but she’ll want to know and understand that a client’s home and property are protected. An advisor does not sell mortgages, but she’ll need to understand a client’s debts and liabilities in order to create a better plan. An advisor also does not create will, trusts, or other estate planning documents, but he or she needs to understand what the client’s plan looks like since so many of a client’s priorities can be gleaned from a look at their “end-game.”

But for financial advisors, it can be much larger than that. Not understanding a client’s estate plan can (and does) result in big losses . . . to relationships, to families, and to an advisor’s bottom line. Let’s look at three easy ways to lose clients by ignoring estate planning:

Loss #1:  Not funding the client’s revocable trust.

Money in the air.If a client already has an estate plan or has planning performed because of an advisor’s recommendation (a good recommendation, generally), the client may end up with a probate-avoidance tool called a revocable trust. A revocable trust more or less adds beneficiary designations to assets that would not ordinarily have them — real estate, cars, boats, furniture, personal property, etc. Because of this, the assets held by the trust avoid the probate process (and all of the probate-associated expenses, heartaches, and inefficiencies).

But this only works if the client’s assets are actually held in trust. Too often a client will have their revocable trust created, and then never actually add anything to it. This creates problems because if the assets aren’t held in the trust, then the assets are not controlled by the trust document and will likely have to go through the probate courts. Meanwhile, the client has paid for an estate plan which has become useless.

The attorney will do his or her best to give the client the proper tools to get these assets transferred. For example, the attorney will create and file the necessary real estate deeds and will draft assignments of closely-held business interests. But it’s the financial advisor who will be meeting with these clients regularly. By working with the client to make sure assets are titled correctly (including that beneficiary designations are accurate and valid), the advisor ensures that the plan works. When a client passes away, the advisor is the one often holding the bulk of the assets . . . if the advisor has involved himself in the estate plan, the family transition will more likely happen smoothly and without a hitch. This gives the advisor a chance to work with the family closely and, hopefully, gain their trust and confidence for another generation. For advisors who are less inclined to work with estate planning, a rough and frustrating legacy transfer can be a deal killer for retaining assets.

Loss #2: Not considering the effects of income taxation on estate planning.

We know and understand that estate taxes can be a problem when a client passes away. But what about income taxes?

When a client dies, their appreciated assets receive a step-up in cost basis. Briefly, this means that if that any stock, real estate, or other asset that would ordinarily get sold and have capital gains tax liability will instead transfer to the beneficiary with a new cost basis determined on the client’s date of death. The beneficiary can then sell these assets without incurring capital gains taxes. This is a really big deal for assets with substantial appreciation. Note that this only happened for transfers on death — if the client were to gift appreciated assets to a family member during the client’s life, the family member would take the client’s original basis and any sale could result in the realization of any capital gains tax liability.

What this means is that appreciated assets are a great thing to pass on to family members after death rather than during life. It also means that if a client is considering making charitable gifts, perhaps there are other assets that might make better sense to give. A great example is qualified money.

As you are aware, qualified IRA and 401K dollars are taxed as ordinary income when distributed to a beneficiary. This is also the case for beneficiaries of the next generation. If a client’s child has the choice between taking stepped-up, tax-free appreciated assets or assets that are taxed at the child’s effective income tax rate, you can guess which they would likely prefer. If there is one class of assets that are perfect for charitable donations, it is those assets that are taxed the highest — qualified money.

A client’s family member who realizes these savings is much more likely to want to work with the professionals who helped to make these savings a reality. Likewise, a huge, unnecessary tax hit will help to ensure that the client finds new professionals when creating their own family legacy.

Loss #3: Not considering tax-deferral for minor children: IRA trusts.

Little Boy Getting Money From An ATMFirst, it’s important to understand that minor children can’t own property, which means they can’t inherit property. This makes most beneficiary designations to minors invalid. There are some beneficiary designation forms which allow for a custodian to be appointed, but even these fall short because the child will typically get a full distribution of the funds at age eighteen (thereby creating a while other set of problems).

This problem is solved using a minor’s trust, which can be written directly into a will or revocable trust plan. A trustee is appointed who can accept property on a child’s behalf — the client then names the trust as the account beneficiary on the relevant beneficiary designation forms.

The big red flag with these trusts is that they must be written in a very specific way if they are going to be receiving qualified retirement assets. The trust must be a “see-through” trust for IRS purposes — it must be able to use the child’s life expectancy when calculating the required minimum distributions which all beneficiaries of inherited IRAs must take. If the trust does not meet IRS requirements for see-through trusts, or if a beneficiary of the trust is a non-human entity (like the estate or a charity), then the IRA must be cashed out within five years. Not only does this destroy the opportunity for tax-deferred growth, but the cash-out will likely be taxed at the trust’s astronomical tax rate (a trust hits it’s maximum tax rate at less than $15,000 in ordinary income per year).

Fortunately, the advisor is the ideal professional to make sure minors are not named directly as IRA beneficiaries. For those who miss this planning opportunity, a client’s tax hit may be all that is needed to ensure the next generation goes elsewhere for their planning needs.

A team-approach is the best approach to any financial plan. Financial advisors, CPAs, attorneys, banking specialists and insurance brokers all have an important role to play. Ensuring the plan is a cohesive one is a surefire way to make the client’s legacy a powerful and effective one — and to ensure a client’s family sees the value your firm adds for generations to come.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees, available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!). He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.


You know estate planning has a lot of moving parts . . . guardianships and trustees for children, real estate and deeds, incapacity planning, charitable giving, business succession, and estate taxes are just a few concerns that clients have when putting together their plan. But one of the biggest problem areas comes from something entirely within the client’s (and their financial advisor’s) control . . . beneficiary designations.

Beneficiary designations operate independently of a will or trust document because these beneficiaries are named under a contractual agreement with the financial company. Life insurance, IRA accounts, brokerage accounts, and any other financial asset that allows the client to choose his or her beneficiary does so under contract law. At the client’s passing, these beneficiaries will receive the client’s funds regardless of what the client has written into a will or trust agreement. If a client has an ex-spouse listed as a beneficiary under a life insurance policy, but leaves everything to the current spouse in a will, then guess who gets the life insurance—the ex-spouse, unless the contract specifies otherwise

Last Will and Testament PapersAnd we like it that way! Beneficiary designations allow a convenient way to augment an estate plan. The assets are kept out of the probate courts and are paid to beneficiaries quickly and privately. Remember, probate is public—a will file can be pulled from the court records any time, along with any documents filed along with it. Probate is also expensive and emotionally draining. Non-probate beneficiary designations make this process easier and less expensive.

But this simplicity is a double-edged sword. Because these designations are simple and straight-forward, they are often taken for granted. Using the wrong beneficiary designations can cause an asset to go to probate when it would not have otherwise. It can cause adverse tax consequences. It can cause someone to receive money when they are in the midst of a divorce or bankruptcy proceeding, causing them to lose their inheritance. Beneficiary designations throw a wrench in estate plans specifically because they are so easy to change.

What are the biggest problem areas with beneficiary designations? Let’s look at the top five that I have experienced. The first is, hopefully, common sense:

Mistake #1: Not Keeping Beneficiary Designations Up to Date
Because beneficiary designations are a creature of contracts rather than estate planning law, they operate completely independently of a will or a trust agreement. If a life insurance policy has an ex-spouse listed as the sole beneficiary, then that is where the money is going. The current spouse can certainly sue the ex for the funds, but the chances of winning are slim . . . the benefit of the doubt goes to the person who made the beneficiary designation (and that person, now deceased, is typically not available to testify). If the beneficiary designation is so easy to update, and the client listed his or her ex, then clearly the client meant for these assets to go to his or her ex, right?

And we want to keep it that way. If angry would-be beneficiaries were to sue financial companies and win, those companies would probably stop letting us use beneficiary designations altogether. So it remains that if a client’s will says “leave everything to my spouse” and the life insurance beneficiary designations say “leave everything to my parents,” it’s going to the parents.

On that note, consider if the beneficiary designation were written so as to give the assets to a beneficiary who is not allowed to own property:

Mistake #2: Naming a Minor as Beneficiary
People who are under age eighteen can’t own property, which means they also can’t inherit property. This might seem like common sense when you think about it, and yet many (if not most) young families name their children as the secondary beneficiary on their financial assets. This beneficiary designations will fail, and an asset that otherwise
Little girl with moneywould have skipped the probate process will now go to probate court. An attorney will
work to get these assets into a conservatorship for the beneficiary, which is itself an expensive process. Perhaps even worse, the child will received the assets outright when they are still very young, typically at age eighteen. Have you seen an eighteen year old receive a lump sum of $100,000? I have. It doesn’t go well.

Some policies allow a custodian to be appointed when there is a minor beneficiary involved, which allows the custodian to accept the funds on the minor’s behalf. This solves the problem of the minor not being able to inherit property, but it does not solve the problem of the beneficiary receiving a very early inheritance.

The solution is often a simple one . . . a testamentary trust can be created directly in the client’s will, and the trust can be named by the client as the beneficiary of his or her financial assets. The trust only exists on paper unless it is needed, at which time it springs into existence and can accept funds on behalf of the beneficiary. The client can determine the terms of the trust . . . does the beneficiary get a lump sum at age twenty-five? Thirty? Never? While in trust, what can the trust pay for? Often college and health expenses are a top priority, with funds to pay for a first home or for a small business sometimes allowed as well.

Testamentary trusts solve all kinds of problems, and they’re not just for children. Trusts can be created for spouses, for charities, or for adult children with special needs. But sometimes the client doesn’t know who he or she wants to leave their money to, so they make a big mistake:

Mistake #3: Naming The Client’s Estate
First, let’s revisit the fact that assets with beneficiary designations skip probate, which means they skip the whole “estate” court process. This is often a good thing . . . though there are some merits to probate (particularly when there is a dispute), probate is expensive, time consuming, emotionally draining, and inefficient. Having a valid beneficiary designation makes this process easier because that entire asset skips probate altogether. Nonetheless, clients often want their life insurance policy, IRA, brokerage account, or other asset to just go to their heirs, so they write in that the assets should go to their “estate.”

This may seem convenient because the asset will now be controlled by the client’s will . . . which means it is now a probate asset. Not only does this cause the asset to go through probate, it can also has the effect of generating a lot of tax liability. If an IRA or other qualified asset lists anyone other than an individual as a beneficiary, then that entire asset must be paid out within five years. This can be caused in more ways than one . . . by naming an estate, or by naming a trust that is not a “see-through” trust for IRS purposes. If the trust does not qualify for this treatment, it accepts the entire IRA over five years. Tax-wise, this can be disastrous (note that if the trust does not make income distributions, this will be taxed at the much higher trust level).

And that brings up the next big point. Beneficiary designations have many consequences, not the least of which can be caused by:

Mistake #4: Lack of Tax Planning
To reiterate, leaving tax deferred, qualified assets to a non-individual can be murder on the100 Dollar money packs pocket book, since assets left to non-individuals must typically be paid out within five years. For tax-deferred money, this means the beneficiary’s effective tax rate can hit the stratosphere. Estates and trusts—or at least, trusts that weren’t drafted in anticipation of receiving qualified funds—are taxed at an astronomically higher effective rate than individuals.

Fortunately, trusts (including will-based testamentary trusts) can be drafted to be “see-through” trusts, which avoid the five-year distribution problem by allowing the trustee to collect required minimum distributions from inherited IRAs on the beneficiary’s behalf. This treatment is not available for assets left to an estate or if the trust has a non-individual as a beneficiary, such as a charity.

But on that note, consider a beneficiary who is charitably inclined. If there is one asset that should likely go to a charity, it is qualified funds. A qualified charity won’t have to pay taxes on funds received from tax-deferred sources like IRAs or 401Ks. A beneficiary will . . . IRA and 401K assets don’t receive the “step-up” given to appreciated non-qualified assets. If there is an opportunity to take advantage of the step-up in cost basis of other assets while leaving assets that would otherwise be taxed as ordinary income to a charitable beneficiary, it could be an incredibly effective tax strategy. Speaking of taxes:

Mistake #5: Forgetting About Credit Shelter Trusts
Minnesota has an estate tax exemption of $1.4 million per person in 2015, rising to $2 million by 2018 (though as of this writing, other proposals are in front of the legislature). The issue with the Minnesota estate tax exemption is that it is not portable . . . if one spouse dies and leaves their assets to the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse does not get to inherit the deceased spouse’s exemption, and therefore can’t “stack” the deceased spouse’s exemption on top of their own. This means the survivor could die with assets above and beyond his or her own estate tax exemption, paying tax on the difference.

The solution is to leave assets to a trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse (called a credit shelter trust). If drafted property, this trust will allow the deceased spouse to use his or her exemption, while still providing assets that can be used if the survivor needs them above and beyond the survivor’s own assets. This can save hundreds of thousands in estate taxes.

But this only works if the trust is funded. Too often clients pay an attorney to draft an effective credit shelter trust, and then they forget to leave assets to it. If the credit shelter isn’t given any assets, it’s going to be tough for it to shelter anything from estate taxes. Even financially savvy clients can sometimes forget about this aspect of their plan when there are dealing with the myriad of other aspects of their financial planning.

Of course, even proper planning doesn’t guarantee it will work if the client doesn’t keep up with it. Creating an effective testamentary or revocable trust only works if it is funded properly and if the assets with separate beneficiary designations are coordinated with the rest of the plan. A proper financial plan is broad, and estate planning is only one part . . . with the financial advisor as the captain, make sure the task of estate planning is given to a capable co-pilot who can make sure the client sees the big picture.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees, available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!). He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.



cover4_1 lowI spent the first six years of my post-law school life working as a professional trustee — first for a large national bank, then for a smaller boutique trust company. I learned so much from these experiences that it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific point where I really felt like I truly understood trusts . . . what motivates grantors to create them, what considerations attorneys must take into account when drafting them, and what a trustee truly needs to understand when managing one. But I can tell you this: the learning process was one that took years. Not weeks or months, but a years-long process that involved reviewing and discussing with my colleagues thousands of trust documents. I’ve since written articles for legal journals around the country about various trust rules, laws, and proposed laws. Yet still I find myself regularly looking up trust statutes and best practices while hoping to find a positive resolution for my clients.

I am always impressed when an individual steps up to act as the trustee of a trust. The trustee is the trust’s “CEO” — the person who manages the assets, decides what distributions to make, keeps records, sends statements, ensures tax returns are filed, et cetera. In short, a big job which is typically done for free by someone known personally by the grantor (the grantor is the person that created the trust with a lawyer). Trustees can (and in many cases should) be professionals, but more often than not, they are family members of the grantor with little or no experience. What takes a professional years to learn becomes the immediate responsibility of this family member. I really admire that family member’s willingness to step up and do the job.

The down side to being an inexperienced trustee may be obvious. I’ve worked with many who found themselves over their heads  . . . angry beneficiaries, outdated records, delinquent taxes, under-performing or under-diversified investments . . . you name it, I’ve probably seen it. I’ve been asked by other attorneys how their client can learn to be a trustee so that they might avoid these frequent problems. Not having a ready answer, I decided to write a thirty page brochure discussion this topic.

Thirty pages turned into 300 (free chapter here). I hope this book will help family members to better understand what is involved in the management of a trust, what they need to do when taking on this important responsibility, and how better to communicate with beneficiaries. Importantly, the book discusses the various professionals a trustee may need to hire (investment professionals, attorneys, accountants, and professional co-trustees). These professionals have every expectation that their clients understand the trusts they are working on; I hope this book will help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

I’d like to think my wife and I are on pleasant enough terms where I am never going to ask
Marriage and money concept of high wedding cost and divorcemyself this question: can I disinherit my spouse?  But the decision to disinherit somebody doesn’t always come about because you don’t like each other; there can be other reasons why it makes sense to leave your assets to someone other than your spouse.

One such reason might be that your spouse simply has enough assets in his or her own name and you have both agreed that your assets are best used somewhere else . . . perhaps in a trust for the education of your grand kids, or maybe for a charity that you support.  Another reason could be estate taxes — by leaving assets to another person (or to a trust), you prevent your spouse’s estate from getting so large that estate taxes will be due on his or her passing.  Yet another reason may be a concern that your spouse will be taken advantage of when you are gone, and you want assets to be held for him or her by a trustee.  So: can I disinherit my spouse?

Spousal Rights

The most important part of this answer is this: in Minnesota, you cannot — ever — disinherit your spouse through your will or trust document (by itself).  In Minnesota your spouse has a guaranteed right to his or her spousal share.  This means that even if your will is drafted to give all of your money goes to charity, and you change all of the beneficiaries of you IRAs and life insurance (your “non-probate” assets) to the names of your children, your spouse still has certain rights including the right to live in the house for his or her life and for some monthly support from the estate.

According to Minnesota law, your spouse also has a right to a percentage of the augmented estate.  The augmented state is (simplified) the value of your stuff plus the value of your spouse’s stuff.  If you and your spouse have been married for only a year, your spouse has a guaranteed right to three percent of the augmented estate.  This percentage increases every year of marriage until year fifteen, in which your spouse has a guaranteed right to fifty percent of the augmented estate — regardless of what you’ve written in your will or other planning documents, and regardless of how you’ve written your beneficiary designation for your non-probate accounts.   It follows that if at the fifteen-year mark the surviving spouse has more than fifty percent of your combined assets in his or her name already, then those assets already exceed half of the augmented estate and there is no additional claim to a spousal share.

Waiver of Rights

So, your spouse has a guaranteed, inalienable right to get a portion of your estate, right?  Not so fast.  There are three ways your spouse can forfeit his or her share.

  1. Pre-nuptial agreement:  Properly drafted, a pre-nuptial agreement can allow you and your spouse to disinherit each other.
  2. Post-nuptial agreement:  Your spouse can agree after you are married to forfeit certain property rights. This includes the right to his or her spousal share.
  3. Consent to will:  Your spouse can sign an acceptance of the terms of your will, including a will that completely disinherits him or her.

You’ll notice that all three of these options involve your spouse affirmatively giving permission to you to give his or her share to someone else.  This makes sense, since the spousal share is at its core a property right, and we can give away our property as we choose.  Your attorney should use extreme caution when drafting any of these three documents: your spouse should have his or her own attorney review the terms of the document to make sure he or she understands what is being given up and any consequences of doing so.

Disinheriting anyone is a big decision that can carry big legal consequences.  Make sure you contact an attorney who is experienced in estate planning before making any major decision that affects your loved ones.  Done properly, there are ways your assets may better serve your family than if they are all left to your husband or wife.  Please contact me so I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

A trustee is the individual you will appoint to manage the assets of your trust and to make sure the instructions you leave in the trust document are appropriately interpreted and followed.  When a beneficiary approaches the trustee and asks for trust funds, should the trustee make the distribution?  Perhaps as importantly, what should the trustee not pay for?

Holding piggy bankTypical trust language allows the trustee broad discretion when making distributions.  For tax planning, the IRS allows a trustee to make distributions for “health, education, maintenance, and support” (or some combination of those four words) — called an ascertainable standard or a HEMS standard — without causing the distribution language to have estate tax problems.  But what do those words really mean?  If your trustee doesn’t know your feelings on trust distributions, then the trustee may turn down requests from trust beneficiaries that you may wish the trustee to make.  Perhaps worse, the trustee may make distributions that you do not want made.


One of the most important things for a trust to pay for is health expenses.  These could be limited to such things as emergency health care or prescriptions, or it could be broad enough to include routine check-ups.  “Health” is a legal term of art in trust drafting — it does not typically cover health insurance expenses, so you will want to make sure your attorney knows whether you wish for the trust to cover these expenses or not when you are having your trust drafted.


Your trust can be used to pay for your beneficiary’s college education.  When it comes to trust language, “education” is another legal term of art . . . it typically means a two- or four-year college degree.  Many trustees will give some leeway to this language and will allow funds to be used for technical school as well.  What it does not typically cover, unless defined elsewhere in the document, is graduate school or other professional training.  Make sure your document defines what “education” means so that there is no confusion.

Support and Maintenance

In trust lingo, support and maintenance really means “living expenses;” your trust can be used to pay for the daily living expenses of your beneficiary.  This can be a bit of a double-edged sword; we don’t want to leave our beneficiaries out in the cold if they lose their jobs or if they incur unexpected or urgent expenses.  On the other hand, being allowed to take a monthly stipend from trust fund can have the effect of creating a lazy and unmotivated beneficiary.  Beneficiaries may also come so used to trust funds supplementing their income that when the trust runs dry, they are unable to adjust their standard of living.  You may want to require your trustee to take into account your beneficiary’s outside resources before making a distribution.  Also consider a trustee making distribution to a beneficiary who struggles with substance abuse; these distributions could do more harm than good. Your estate attorney can advise you on proper distribution language for virtually any special circumstance.

Comfort and Reasonable Luxuries

Recall that the “HEMS” standards outlined above limit a trustee’s expenditures in order to protect the beneficiary from estate taxation problems.  When estate taxes are not a concern, trusts may become much more liberal with distributions.  Language referring to comfort and reasonable luxuries allows the trustee to make distributions outside of what is typically allowed under the HEMS standard, such as vacations, a nicer car, a better home, and perhaps some gifts.  Attorneys may add additional language that can customize the distributions a trustee may make, allowing you to create a trust that truly fits the needs of your beneficiaries.

Ultimately the trustee will make distributions based on a number of factors, such as the purpose and size of the trust, the intended duration of the trust, the ages of the beneficiaries and their anticipated financial needs later in life, the requirements and expectations of future trust beneficiaries, etcetera.  But you will get the trustee started on the right foot if your trust language and trustee instructions are clear.  If you are interested in learning more about how you can set up your trusts, please contact me.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

If you’re like most Americans, the bulk of your liquid assets are held in retirement plans such as a 401(k) or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  These are great places to stash retirement funds — company matches and tax-deferred growth (or tax-free growth, in the case of Roth plans) jump-start these savings plans in a way not available for non-retirement assets.  If used properly, this will create a comfortable retirement nest egg that will carry you through your post-career life.

401k - Nest EggBut what happens after that?  There is a good chance that at least some of these assets will outlive you, and you may have other family members to care for (such as a surviving spouse).  The tax-deferred nature of qualified retirement funds presents unique challenges and opportunities for your family as you contemplate your estate planning.  The biggest thing to consider is who you will list as the beneficiaries of these plans; as far as taxes are concerned, all beneficiaries are not created equal. Speaking strictly from the standpoint of tax liability, the best beneficiaries are charities, followed by a surviving spouse, then other family members, and lastly (and definitely least), outright to your estate.

First, understand that marketable assets such as stocks and bonds receive a step-up in cost basis at the death of the owner.  Consider if I bought a share of stock for $1, and then the value of that share few to $100 and I sold it.  During my life, I would have to pay capital gains tax on the $99 gain I received from this sale (the sale of the stock at $100, less my cost basis of $1).  If instead I died and left the share of stock to a child, the child gets a new cost basis of the value of the share of stock when I died. If that value was $100, then the child gets that share of stock with a cost basis of $100.  If he or she then turned around and sold that share for $100, that child has received the stock completely tax-free, assuming my estate is below federal estate tax levels.  The step-up in basis erased any capital gains and the tax liability that would have gone with those gains.

Those same assets held in a tax-deferred retirement plan such as a 401(k) or IRA do not receive this step-up in cost basis . . . all distributions from these retirement funds, whether they be to you or to a beneficiary, are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn from the retirement plan.  If I make $50,000 from my job, and I receive $10,000 from a tax-deferred retirement fund, then I pay taxes as if I made $60,000.  That’s going to be much more tax than if I instead received an inheritance from assets that are not taxed as ordinary income (such as an after-tax brokerage account).

Because these gifts contain built-in tax liability, tax-deferred retirement assets are the best assets to give to charities, if you are charitably-minded.  Because qualified charities do not pay any taxes on gifts they receive, they are the ideal beneficiaries of any estate asset that carries income or capital gains tax liability because your gift to goes further than if it were given to someone who will have to use a part of that gift to pay taxes.  This makes qualified charities the perfect beneficiary of high-tax assets such as tax-deferred retirement assets.

For those not so inclined, you should next consider leaving these assets to your spouse.  Your surviving spouse will be able to treat qualified retirement assets as if they were part of his or her own retirement account . . . this typically means he or she could defer taking distribution (and owing income tax) until the spouse 70 ½ years old, which is the age at which individuals are required to begin taking their required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified plans.  Even then, they will only be require to pay taxes on the required minimum distribution amount (an amount that is calculated based on the surviving spouse’s life expectancy), and will enjoy continued tax-deferred growth for the assets that remain in the retirement plan.

If you would prefer to leave your qualified tax-deferred plan to another individual such as an adult child, understand that unlike your spouse, a child will not be allowed to defer the RMD distributions until he or she turns 70 ½; the child will be required to begin taking RMDs from the plan immediately.  This can pose some problems if the child is in a high income tax bracket because your gift to them will be diminished substantially by the income taxes he or she incurs at his or her effective tax rate.  But assuming the child does not take large additional distributions from the account (which would incur even more taxes), the majority of the assets will continue to enjoy tax-deferred growth.  You can also work with an attorney to set up a trust which, if properly drafted, can accept the RMDs from the account on behalf of the child, which can then me managed by a trustee.  This is a great option if the child requires assistance in managing money.

The least preferable option, and one that occurs all too often, is to either leave the assets outright to an estate, or to a trust that is not properly structured to receive retirement distribution for a beneficiary.  If this happens, the entire account must become payable to the estate or trust within five years.  Estates and trusts have much smaller tax brackets (resulting in much higher effective tax rates) than individuals, and income tax liability can be devastating. A substantial distribution to an estate or improperly drafted trust could result in half of the gift disappearing into the hands of the tax man.

This is not to imply that someone should turn their nose up at a gift of retirement assets from a family member!  Speaking personally, I would certainly take a taxable gift over no gift at all.  But it’s worth talking about the ideal recipients of gifts from tax-deferred retirement plans so that you can maximize the gifts you make to your family members. Proper primary and secondary beneficiary designations are a key part of any estate plan, and part of what you are paying your estate planner to do.  Ensuring that you select the proper beneficiaries for your plan will give you and your family the peace of mind you deserve from your years of hard work and saving.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

There can be a lot of confusion about probate and how it relates to someone’s estate plan. It’s typically talked about as if it were something to be avoided at all costs, lest you bankrupt your family. Talking to someone about the probate process often generates a lot of questions about the basics: What is probate? Is it expensive? It’s bad, right? How do you skip it?

closeup of a Last Will and Testament documentProbate is the process by which the court system supervises the division of an estate. “Estate” is the term given to the assets and debts held by someone at the time of their passing. A will, revocable trust, and other planning documents are created to govern what happens to the estate during the probate process (and in some cases to skip it altogether).

Not all estates will go through probate, but before I explain why, it’s important to understand three basic types of property that affect the probate estate: joint property, non-probate property, and probate property. The amount of these three types of property you have will determine not only whether your estate will go through probate, but whether the probate proceedings will be formal or informal. Spoiler: formal probate can be expensive and time consuming. Informal probate — at least in Minnesota — isn’t so bad.

Joint property, specifically property that is owned in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) is property that is owned equally and in undivided shares with at least one other person. A common example of joint property is the home where someone lives with his or her spouse or significant other. If the house is deeded in the names of both owners in jointly tenancy with rights of survivorship, then the property transfers automatically at the death of the first owner to the surviving owner. The county office responsible for keeping property records will need to be notified of the passing of one of the joint owners, but aside from this, the transfer is automatic and happens outside of probate by operation of law. No probate proceeding is needed for property that is owned jointly.

Not all real estate titled in the names of multiple owners is JTWROS; property titled in the name of multiple people as tenants in common will not pass automatically to the other owners. In the case of tenants in common, the portion owned by the deceased owner is controlled by that person’s will (or if they don’t have a will, then the state’s intestacy statute). This is property that may have to be supervised in the probate process (property owned as tenants in common is probate property).

Non-probate property is very similar to JTWROS property because it is property that passes automatically at death without any probate supervision. If you have a life insurance policy, a retirement account, or an investment account which allows you to designate beneficiaries, this is typically non-probate property. The account will pass to that individual without the help of the probate court; the beneficiary will need to mail in a death certificate proving that a death has occurred, and the property becomes theirs. There can be various tax consequences with these types of transfers, so be very careful who you name as a beneficiary (a transfer of a 401K to a non-family member can cause a large amount of income tax liability which may not have occurred if the account was given to a spouse, for example). Be careful here . . . if you name your estate as the beneficiary of these accounts, then this non-probate property will suddenly become probate property, and will be controlled by your will. This can be particularly problematic for tax-deferred accounts like 401Ks and IRAs, which can cause huge unintended tax consequences. You probably shouldn’t do this.

There are other types of non-probate property, such as real estate that is titled with a transfer-on-death-deed (TODD). Any property titled in the name of a properly drafted revocable or irrevocable trust, subject to transfer rules, is also non-probate property. This property is removed from the probate estate and will be transferred to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust document by operation of law.

Lastly we have probate property, which is, loosely, “everything else.” All of your “stuff” that is title in your name at death: your tangible personal property that has not been added to a trust, your bank accounts without beneficiary designations, your cars, your jewelry, etc.  All of this property is controlled by your will and is subject to probate. A Minnesota estate that is less than $50,000 in value will typically be allowed to skip the probate process and instead transfer via an Affidavit of Collection, though there are exceptions.

Probate proceedings in some states can be an all-out lawyer brawl and can get very expensive. Fortunately, most estates that go through the probate process in Minnesota will go through informally (it pays to be Minnesota Nice!). An affidavit is filed with the court and notice is given to the estate’s interested parties. The probate attorney is then able to distribute the probate assets subject to transfer rules and claims from creditors (due to notice requirements, this can be a slow process). If the estate is exceptionally large, if it is insolvent (the person dies with more debts than assets), if there is a dispute among family members, or if the assets are complicated, then there may be a formal probate which is typically more expensive and has a higher level of attorney and judicial involvement.

Probate laws and estate taxation laws are unique to each state. Make sure you consider your state’s laws carefully before making any estate planning decisions (this is where I mention that you should hire an attorney who specialized in estate planning). Probate doesn’t have to be the nightmare that everyone thinks it is, but that assumes your estate is not only planned properly, but is also executed according to your plan.  If you have questions, I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

Most people will receive an inheritance at some point in their lives. Whether this amount is $10 million or $10,000, not everyone is equipped to handle a windfall of cash. There is a misconception that when someone creates their will they have little choice but to leave their money to their adult (or minor) children outright. That’s not necessarily the case; parents can use a testamentary trust — a trust written directly into their wills — to hold funds back from their kids so that the money may be used for specific purposes.  What age, if ever, is it appropriate to leave your children a large sum of cash?

Holding piggy bankIf you’re nervous about when your kids should receive your money, you aren’t alone. There is increasingly a realization that twenty-somethings are not equipped to handle large sums of cash. This article references a study by U.S. Trust in which two-thirds of those polled were unsure whether their children would act responsibly with their inheritance.

When you write your will, there is always an option to leave your estate to your heirs in trust rather than outright. This might be because you are worried that someone will take advantage of your spouse financially, or because you feel that your children may not handle a large sum of money appropriately. You may also feel that the funds should be used for something specific — perhaps for medical care, college, or just for financial emergencies. Increasingly, parents want to simply keep the cash out of their children’s’ hands until the child has reached a certain age where they will be better able to manage these funds for their own benefit.

I’ve noticed that the age at which an attorney recommends a beneficiary receives his or her windfall is closely correlated to the attorney’s age. Younger attorneys are more confident that younger beneficiaries should have their money — often at age thirty-five or so. Older attorneys feel otherwise, and will often recommend a final distribution age that is much later, perhaps into a beneficiary’s forties. The appropriate age of course depends on the beneficiary: how has the beneficiary managed their money in the past?  Are there any concerns about substance abuse or gambling? Does the beneficiary have alimony or other financial obligations which need to be addressed?  Does the beneficiary run a business that has a high risk of being sued? All these things and more should be considered when determining when (or if) the beneficiary should have ready access to funds from the trust you create in your will.

I have to admit that I am biased towards a later inheritance age for beneficiaries.  Having worked as a professional trustee for a number of years, I have seen, repeatedly, what happens to younger beneficiaries who receive a windfall of cash. There are obviously those that handle it responsibly, but when you are talking about individuals between eighteen and twenty-five, the outcome is not often positive. I have seen young people with access to a few hundred-thousand dollars lose the whole thing in a matter of years.  I have also seen young heirs lose motivation to go to school or to find a job, since they don’t have to work for their financial security. You can imagine what their life looks like when the money runs out.

Personally, I think a great way to structure your testamentary trust is to allow the trustee to make distributions for school and for medical costs at any time. When the beneficiary reaches a point of mental, emotional, and professional maturity, this is a great time for him or her to have access to the rest of the money.  My opinion (generally) is that this age is  in the beneficiary’s thirties . . . this provides enough time for the child to have his or her life, education, and career in order. The beneficiary may have priorities at this point that go beyond their own needs, such as purchasing a home or caring for children.

And don’t forget, there is nothing wrong with giving your children and grandchildren an early inheritance, whereby you can supervise their investments and also receive the benefit of watching them enjoy it. Though you will need to be extra careful of gift tax considerations when making lifetime gifts, this option can create a lot of enjoyment for both the person making and the person receiving the gifts.

Remember, you don’t have to leave money to a beneficiary outright; you can delay their inheritance to any age you like via a testamentary trust.  Talk with your estate planning attorney about concerns you have about leaving funds outright to your children or other beneficiaries; together, you can find a solution that works for everyone, while still meeting your estate planning goals.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

We have two dogs, Moose and Ruby. I’m only a little embarrassed to say that we fall into the “pets are a part of the family” category of animal owner . . . our dogs pretty much go where we go, to the point where they may be the determining factor as to whether we go on a vacation or take a weekend trip. For those who know us, this is probably not surprising. We have been active with local animal rescues and at the local municipal animal care and control center. Our animals are a big part of our lives; it probably also isn’t surprising that making sure they are cared for if something happened to us is a pretty big deal.

Yep, that's us.  Philip and Mary Ruce, pictured with Moose Ruce (L) and Ruby Ruce.  Photo via Cara Lemmage Photographs.

Philip and Mary Ruce, pictured with Moose Ruce (L) and Ruby Ruce. Photo via Cara Lemmage Photographs.

Some states make it very easy to provide for your pet in your estate plan, usually by creating a pet trust. Sadly, Minnesota is not one of these states. A pet trust is a legal entity consisting of a trustee and some trust assets (usually some money you leave to the trustee in your will). The trustee manages the trust assets for a human beneficiary who has agreed to care for the animal, and to use those trust funds for the animal’s care. This arrangement is perfectly allowable in Minnesota too, except in the pet trust states, the agreement is an enforceable obligation.

The problem lies in the status of pets as personal property.  This makes sense, of course; dogs, cats, parrots, and ferrets are not people. They can’t make contracts, they can’t consent to legal agreements, and they certainly can’t hire a lawyer and sue when they are having a problem. Pets, in the eyes of our legal system, are property on the same level as your couch or dining room table (though certain states are becoming enlightened ). Sometimes that doesn’t feel right because of the personal nature of our relationship with our animals . . . surely a living, breathing thing that depends on me for food and shelter isn’t on the same footing as my refrigerator. But it’s the reality, and it’s something we need to work around when we are planning our estate.

Your Pet’s Care

You can still set money aside for your pet’s care. I mentioned that you can create a trust for your pet, but it is not enforceable in the same way as it is in states that have pet trust laws. But if there is someone you know of who you trust to care for your pet if something happens to you, make sure you leave instructions in your will indicating that this person has agreed to accept the animal and to provide care. You could then leave this person some money outright, or you could create a small trust for the benefit of this person. The trust could be written to reimburse that person for all animal-related expenses, such as vet bills and pet food.

If you do not have someone who can care for your pet, that is okay. There are organizations with whom you can make arrangements; contact pet rescues in your area. Oftentimes, in exchange for a donation in your will, they will commit to caring for your pet when you are gone and they will work towards finding a new home for your animal.  Make sure you have an arrangement with the pet rescue in writing before assuming your pet will have care.  Here is a downloadable .PDF with more information from the Animal Humane Society.

Changes Coming?

Minnesota is considering changing its trust code to conform to the Uniform Trust Code, a set of model rules that many states are adopting as their own. The Code does allow for pet trusts, but it is up to the Minnesota legislature as to whether the pet trust provisions will be included. As an animal advocate and pet owner, I would love to see pet trusts become part of the estate planning landscape in Minnesota. Until then, let’s make sure we remember our furry friends, and let’s not forget the commitment we have made to care for them.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning, will

You need to consider many things when creating your estate plan . . . .  Who would get your favorite family heirloom?  What would be the best way to transfer your house to your spouse? How would your retirement accounts be taxed? And if you have young children, who would care for them?  Most people plan on leaving an inheritance to their children, but many fail to consider how they will give it to them. Giving it outright is not always a great idea . . . have you ever seen an eighteen-year-old with a $100,000 check?  I have. The result of this type of windfall is about what you’d expect.

Business advisory meetingNot everyone realizes that you have a choice about when your kids will receive your money. The money can be doled out over a period of years, or for specific things like college, a down payment on a home, funds for starting a business, or for emergency medical care. You can accomplish this in a very straightforward way by creating a testamentary trust in your will document.

Keeping Control

Testamentary trust provisions allow you to control your money even after you are gone.  The provisions create a trust entity that will be managed by the trustee, who is an individual (or sometimes a professional trust company) that you choose.  The trustee works with your child or the child’s guardian to pay for certain expenses which you specify in the trust document.  Eventually, at a time you’ve determined, the trust pays out its remaining balance; this could be when the beneficiary is twenty-five, thirty-five, fifty, ninety, or any age in between.  Funds could also be left in the trust for the child’s whole life, and then paid out to the next generation (or held in trust for them too).  You can also attach conditions to the money, such as a bonus distribution upon the completion of a college degree, or instructions to keep funds out of the hands of a child who is struggling with substance abuse.  Provisions can be drafted that will prevent the trustee from distributing the money if the child is going through a divorce or a bankruptcy, thereby protecting the child’s inheritance from these proceedings.

Expensive Mistakes

If you leave money to a minor child outright — either through your will or by listing the child as a beneficiary of you financial accounts or life insurance policies, you could be making a very expensive mistake.  Rules vary by state, but funds left outright to minors are held by the probate court and administered by a conservator.  This isn’t cheap, and the court will give the child the funds outright when he or she turns eighteen (sometimes twenty-one, depending on the circumstances).  I have watched eighteen-year-olds spend their entire inheritance within a year on cars, electronics, and misplaced generosity to their friends.

I don’t mean to generalize the behavior of an entire group of people based solely on their age, but I look at myself at eighteen and I look at myself now, and I can tell you unequivocally that a windfall of cash would be handled much differently today than it would have been handled when I was a teenager.

A word of caution: these provisions must be drafted in a very specific way if they are to qualify with the IRS to receive retirement plan funds, and the other provisions in the will have to be very specific as to how the trust will be created and how it will be managed.  This is not a do-it-yourself project.  Drafted properly, these provisions can ensure that your children will be set to succeed and will have access to these funds for a lifetime.  Set up improperly, and you can disinherit them altogether.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning, will

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