Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Planning for Couples with an Age Gap

Each estate plan is slightly different, but there are some challenges in estate planning that present themselves to different couples.  One common challenge is planning for married couples who have a significant age difference.

Perhaps the most obvious issue involves overall financial planning.  With age differences, one spouse is likely to outlive the other, perhaps by a considerable length of time.  The younger spouse may therefore feel more comfortable taking certain risks than the older spouse who is more likely to suffer from short-term financial dips.  It is important to balance the interests of both partners.  Couples of different ages require unique planning so that time horizons are meshed.  Retirement planning can be tricky if one spouse plans on working longer.  Similarly, long-term health care planning will be implicated by the age differential.  One spouse may need care earlier, though it is usually not prudent to automatically assume that the younger spouse will be able to provide the needed care.

A recent Morning Star article touched on many of these topics and mentioned a few other issues to consider for couples in this situation.  One point made in the story is that these couples often need to prioritize long-term care and life insurance.  Planning for disability is particularly crucial to couples, because family finances must account for both partners.  If one spouse is injured or faces a medical complication and is disabled, then family finances may be decimated if expensive, long-term care is needed.  In the worst-case scenario, assets are exhausted to care for one spouse while the second spouse remains healthy.  In order for the sick spouse to receive Medicaid support, assets for the entire couple must be below a certain level.  The healthier spouse can be left with little to no assets.  In these situations it is critical to get professional advice, as certain strategies can be employed in order to save as many assets for the second spouse as possible while still allowing the ill spouse to qualify for Medicaid.  This is particularly true for spouses with large age differences, because the younger spouse often needs assets to last for many years to come.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Family Feuds Over Inheritance While Parents Are Alive

Family inheritance disputes are extremely common.  In most of the cases that make headlines, a famous individual passes away without conducting thorough estate planning and various family members publicly feud to get their fair share of the individual's wealth.  Family disagreements regarding an inheritance are quite common, particularly when no planning is done and the matters must be left up to the court-centered probate process.  Sometimes, though, feuding occurs even before the family matriarch or patriarch passes away.  For example, a recent Sacramento Bee letter explored a situation where two siblings seemingly isolated an aging mother from other siblings. Claims of undue influence and abuse were made. The three ostracized siblings were left wondering what options were available to ensure they received their share of the inheritance.

The case: The 80-year-old mother drafted a will specifying that she wanted all of her assets split evenly between her children.  However, after the will was created, two siblings convinced the mother to take out loans totaling more than $100,000 for their children's college education and to purchase a house.  One daughter obtained power of attorney over the mother and moved into the mother's home.

The three remaining siblings became concerned about the situation, questioning whether their mother was being taken advantage of, and reported their suspicions to local authorities.  The mother is now on Social Security and has no assets other than her home, which may even have been used as collateral on the loans. The siblings are left wondering if they will have any inheritance at all.

This situation presents a wide range of legal issues, and the case is a reminder of the dangers of relying only on a will.  Legally, the resolution of these issues will depend on a range of factors, including whether the siblings signed promissory notes on the loans and whether any changes to the will were made in the time that the daughter has lived with the mother.  No matter how it ends, it is likely to be a contentious, drawn-out process.

The lesson: Parents can ensure that their children never deal with this situation by locking down inheritance affairs early on with more comprehensive legal tools, like trusts. Children are well-served by encouraging their parents to deal with these issues as soon as possible since planning will not only settle inheritance issues, but also save on taxes and provide for potential disability.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Did You Know Your Taxes Are Going Up?

At a recent national meeting of the American Academy of Trust, Estate and Elder Law Attorneys, a premier educational seminar for estate planning attorneys, a major topic we discussed was taxes.  There are some important increases that you should know about.

Taxes are scheduled to increase dramatically in 2013: 
                                                                           2012                  2013
Estate and Gift Tax – Top Tax Rate                       35%                   55%
Estate and Gift Tax Exemption                              $5 million           $1 million
Federal Income Taxes – top rates
         Capital Gains                                              15%                   20%
         Qualified Dividends                                      15%                   39.6%
         Interest & Compensation Income                  35%                   39.6%
In the current political climate, Congress and the President are not likely to reach a compromise on these issues.  What does this mean for you?  2012 is a year of opportunity while taxes are lower.  It would be wise to schedule an appointment to review your estate plan before September 1, and see if there are steps you can take to improve your family’s position.  If you wait to the last minute, it may not be possible to put a plan in place before the law changes.