Category Archives: Debt

Buying Mom’s House: Be Careful

Dear Liza,  The only asset funding my Mother’s Trust is her primary residence. However, she recently moved from CA to live with me in WA. My sister would like to purchase the home but doesn’t have the full amount. She would pay a down payment of $150,000 which would assist with my Mother’s caregivers and in-home health care. The balance approx. $150,000-$200,000 would be recorded as a Deed of Trust naming the Trustee of the Trust as the beneficiary.  Would this affect  or invalidate the Trust in any way? I have to give you a sort of lawyerly answer on this one: probably this is just fine, but you should have an attorney take a look at the trust to make sure that your mother, as the grantor of the trust and current trustee of the trust, has the power to sell trust assets and the power to loan trust assets.  A well-drafted trust would certainly permit this, but I’ve seen trusts that aren’t well drafted to be sure. Also, sales of assets between family members should be for fair market value (in other words, your sister should be willing to pay what a third-party buyer would be willing to pay). Otherwise,  your mother would be making a taxable gift to your sister of the difference between that fair market value and the price she actually paid.  Your mother should get the house appraised to document this value before the sale occurs. Finally, the interest rate on the loan must be at least the applicable federal rate (AFR) for loans of that sort in the month the loan is made (this is published monthly by the IRS.) If the loan’s interest is too low, the difference between that rate and the AFR is also considered a taxable gift from your mother to your sister.

Gifts v. Loans from Mom

Dear Liza: I want to buy a home in Arizona and my Mom wants to loan me the 40k for my 20% down. It’s from her savings account. My broker said she should do a letter saying she is “gifting” it to me.  She lives in California. Will this cause her any issues with the IRS? can she loan it instead? Your Mom can give you the money or loan you the money, it’s up to her.  If she gives you the money, she will need to file a gift tax return next year.  But, she won’t owe any gift tax because each person is currently allowed to give (I kid you not!) five million dollars, free of gift tax.  Her 40K gift to you will mean that she only has $4,960,000 left of her lifetime gifting credit. This shouldn’t cause her major trouble, right? If, instead, she’d rather make a loan to you, she can do so. But the loan should be in writing, the interest rate must be at least equal to the published federal rate (AFR) for that month, and the loan should be secured by the property. Here’s a good article on family loans that you might find helpful.

Does My Sister’s Husband Inherit?

Dear Liza: My Mother’s Will left ½ to me, ½ to my sister.  I am married with no children; my sister is survived by her husband and two grown children. The probate attorney said my sister’s share will go to her two children, but that her husband would inherit nothing.  If that’s true, why does my attorney want my sister’s husband to sign a Quit Claim deed?   As a general matter, unless a Will or trust states otherwise,  a parent’s inherited share is passed to their surviving issue (children, grandchildren) and not to a surviving spouse.  Of course, your mother could have left your sister’s share to your sister’s husband if she wanted to. Without reading the Will and without reviewing probate rules for your state, I can only offer you some general thoughts.  It sounds as if your attorney is just being extra careful to make sure that title to the house is clear–if you ever sell that house, the chain of title must be documented and cleared before the sale. A Quit Claim Deed documents that your brother-in-law has no claim on the property, which sounds true.  Your brother-in-law may feel more comfortable signing the Quit Claim deed if he gets his own attorney to make sure that nothing fishy is going on.

Do heirs have to pay credit card debts?

Dear Liza: My mother recently died, leaving a $25,000 credit card debt.  There isn’t enough money in her estate to pay that bill.  What should I do? You are not personally responsible for that debt. Credit card debt is unsecured debt–unlike, say, a house or a car loan, that is secured by the value of the underlying asset (the house or the car).  A creditor can go after the assets in your mother’s estate to try and collect on that debt, but they can’t come after you personally. Sadly, many unscrupulous collection agencies ‘forget’ to tell heirs that, implying that they are on the hook for the money. You should notify the credit card company that your mother had died and that she didn’t leave enough money to pay the debt. Many card companies will settle for pennies on the dollar (because, really, they know that only the estate is liable, not you.) Good luck.

Transfer on death accounts and debts

Dear Liza, I am a single male in my sixties. I do not own any real estate property and almost all of my financial accounts are TOD accounts.  I intend to leave my estate to my three adult children.  I have a small stock portfolio and some personal property that I will list in my will. Would  any estate taxes and outstanding debts be paid from the TOD financial accounts I have before the accounts are released to my beneficiaries or would only the stocks and personal property be liquidated to pay the amounts owed? What would happen if there is not enough in my residual estate to cover any outstanding debts? First off, a Transfer on Death (TOD) account is a bank or brokerage account that has a designated beneficiary, who receives the account upon the death of the account owner, without the need for a probate. It’s a great vehicle for passing assets to adult children, especially when, as in your case, you own no real property. (In most states, there’s no way to make real property pass this way, with a transfer on death deed, which is why living trusts are used to avoid probate.) As for debts, if they are unsecured debts (like credit card debts), your heirs are not responsible for paying them. However, the creditors can go after the assets that your heirs inherited from you to pay these debts–it’s just that it usually isn’t worth it to them to do so.  Estate taxes are different–those accounts are part of your taxable estate (you owned them at death) and the heirs would be responsible for paying tax due on these. However, at the moment, you can pass up to $5 million dollars, free of the estate tax, and it doesn’t sound like you (like most people) don’t have that kind of an estate. Here’s a good resource to learn more about this.

Does a Living Trust protect against creditors?

Dear Liza: My wife is in the middle of her medical residency.  With the risk of future lawsuits, do Living Trusts or other vehicles help protect family assets from Malpractice or other law suits?

Nope. Sorry. A revocable living trust does not protect assets from creditors. A revocable trust’s purpose is to provide tax planning at the death of the first spouse, and probate avoidance at the death of the second. Both are worthy goals and I do not in any way feel that I spend my working life selling snake oil. But during your lifetimes, those assets are fully reachable by creditors. Asset protection trusts are different beasts entirely. There’s a large industry of lawyers out there, figuring out clever ways to protect doctors from law suits, but they are not estate planners, as a rule.

When does it make sense to do a Living Trust?

Dear Liza: We are a young family with significant debt  and very little in tangible assets (we completely own just one car — we rent our house).  However, my wife and I have plans of significantly decreasing debt and increasing assets/wealth in the future.  Is it worth the time/costs to create a Living Trust now?  Or should we wait until we actually have assets?  Does it matter?

Because you have a young child, what you really need right now is a Will, naming guardians for your kids and putting a plan in place to manage assets for those kids until they grow up. If you don’t own a house right now, or more than 100K in the bank, I’d say, wait on the trust. The purpose of a trust is to transfer what you’ve got to your kids efficiently and inexpensively. But if you’ve really got nothing to transfer, the trust doesn’t buy you much at the moment. You could certainly create a living trust now, in anticipation of your future wealth, but if there’s nothing to fund that trust with at the moment, I’d say hold off. But do get that Will done. :)

Your Husband’s Debts–the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Dear Liza: My brother died recently. He owned community property with his Wife. Is she now responsible for his debts?

Most likely, yes. In community property states, debts incurred during the marriage are the responsibility of the community. So, after the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse is liable for those debts. I can’t tell from the question whether or not your brother lived in a community property state, or in a state with common law rules, and signed an agreement making their property community. If so, it depends on what that Agreement actually says–sometimes Agreements specifically keep debt separate.

The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. (In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement making their assets community property, but few people choose to do this.) The common law states are everywhere else. Nolo has a great article on this: “Debt and Marriage.” Here’s a helpful excerpt :

In states that follow “common law” property rules, debts incurred by one spouse are usually that spouse’s debts alone, unless the debt was for a family necessity, such as food or shelter for the family or tuition for the kids. (These are general rules; some states have subtle variations in how they treat joint and separate debts.)