Category Archives: Estate Planning Basics

Can I Put My House Into a Living Trust if There’s a Mortgage?

houseDear Liza: Can real estate that still has a mortgage on it be placed in a trust? Yes, you can place real property with a mortgage into a revocable living trust. That is, in fact, quite common. Most people, after all, don’t own their houses free and clear when they set up their living trusts. But transferring real property into the trust does not change your obligation to continue to pay the mortgage–if you don’t pay, they can still take back the house. And, if you refinance the house at some future time, the lender may ask you to take the house out of the trust to get the new loan, then put it back in. This is annoying, but not a deal-breaker. Not all lenders require this, but many do.

Federal legislation passed in the 1980’s (the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Regulation Act) says that the transfer of real property into a revocable living trust does not trigger what’s called a ‘due on sale’ clause in a mortgage–which would allow the lender to demand that you repay the loan in full, as if you’d sold the property to a new owner.

So, to summarize, it’s fine to put your house into a revocable trust to avoid probate, even if that house is subject to a mortgage.

Beneficiary Designations Are the Last Word

Dear Liza: My Stepmother had a pension, my father was the beneficiary after she died. He made me beneficiary after his death. After he died, I received the pension. Now my stepmother’s sister wants it. She is not a beneficiary. Is she entitled to it? Can she try to fight it?  Your stepmother’s sister, based on what you’ve written here, is not entitled to that pension. If she isn’t the named beneficiary, she’s not entitled to the money. It’s that simple. When an account or a pension has a named beneficiary, that beneficiary is the only person entitled to that asset. Period. Unless your father didn’t have the right to name a beneficiary after his death, or was somehow named improperly by your stepmother, no one else but you would be entitled to the money. In other words, if a beneficiary is improperly designated, then that beneficiary designation itself can be challenged. But otherwise, the account holder’s designation of a beneficiary is the last word.

What A Custodial Account Can (and Can’t) Be Used For

Dear Liza: My uncle recently passed away. He named both my grandmother and myself as Personal Representatives of his Will, with a clause stating that if a guardian is needed to care for his children or their property, he named me and my grandmother. The clause also states that if any of his children are under the age of 21, the guardian shall serve as custodian for his or her property under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act until she reaches 21. His 17 year old daughter is the sole beneficiary on his life insurance policy form his employer. Will we be able to utilize this policy to assist with his funeral arrangements? I’m sorry to hear about your uncle. And I’m sorry to answer your question with a resounding, “nope!” Your niece is the beneficiary of that life insurance policy, and you, as the custodian for that property, can only use it for her benefit, not for the funeral arrangements of her father. Money left in a custodial account can only be used for the benefit of the minor, not anyone else. You’ll have to find another way to pay for those funeral arrangements.

Leaving Money to a Kid That Can’t Handle It

safeDear Liza: My wife and I are are planning to initiate an estate plan soon but we keep running into the issue of how to leave everything to our 28 year old son. He would be the only recipient as we have no other children, but he has no financial proficiency whatsoever and we have no expectations that he will ever achieve any. We we fairly certain that if we just leave anything to him it will be gone in less than five years. I would like your advice on how to handle this situation. So, the first thing that I want to say is that you’re not alone. I work with lots of people who struggle with some variety of this issue. The second thing that I want to say is that it sounds like you have a fairly clear idea of what could happen if you left your son his inheritance outright and free of trust, so trust that.

No pun intended, but actually leaving his money in trust is one option. In your estate plan, you could leave him his money in a trust, and appoint a trusted friend, or a bank, or a financial company to serve as Trustee. The money could be for his benefit, but it would not be invested or distributed by him. That kind of trust could last for his entire lifetime, and, since it would be held in an irrevocable trust, would not be available to his creditors or to his spouse (if he got married). If you hold it in a lifetime trust, though, you should name an institution as Trustee, since your son would likely outlive a trusted friend of your generation. Another option would be to direct your Trustee to purchase an annuity for your son, that would guarantee a level payout over his lifetime. This is a good option sometimes, but if your son had an emergency need, such as medical care, an annuity wouldn’t be flexible enough to address that need.

What Should I Do About Assets Not Held in Trust?

pot of goldDear Liza: My husband and I married in our 60’s and managed our affairs as “yours, mine and ours”.  He held his assets in accounts named as his trust. All combined assets were joint accounts, joint tenancy , etc. My accounts are either in my IRA or individual bank accounts in my name only. We contributed an equal amount to our joint accounts every month to pay living expenses. His daughters are trustees of his trust and sole beneficiaries. My husband died last week after a long illness. Do I need to go to probate for the assets NOT named by his trust? I’m sorry about your husband. You won’t need to open a probate if the total value of the assets in his name and not held by the trust are below your state’s small estate’s threshold. In California, where I practice, that limit is $150,000, but it differs state-by-state. To find out your state’s small estate threshold, click here. One important thing to remember is that this total doesn’t include the value of any assets that are held in joint tenancy, those assets pass to the surviving joint tenant automatically, because that’s what joint tenancy means–the surviving joint tenant owns the entire asset, whether that’s a house or a bank account. This total also doesn’t include any assets with a beneficiary designation, such as life insurance or a payable on death account. So, if your husband had only a few small accounts held in his own name that didn’t have a beneficiary or weren’t held in joint tenancy with you, you won’t have to open a probate to transfer them.  You will, though, need to follow your state’s rules for small estates– in California, after 40 days, there’s a simple one-page declaration that the executor can sign to transfer these assets.  If your husband had a pour-over Will in addition to his trust (which he should have had), these assets would pass to the trust’s beneficiaries, his daughters.

Can I Administering a Trust Without a Lawyer?

living trustLiza: I live in California and my dad passed away recently. I am the executor of his living trust.  His estate is around $500K.  Do I need an attorney to handle his trust?  Can I do it?  Or can a paralegal take care of this?  I do not know where to start.  I am overwhelmed.  Any guidance is greatly appreciated. I’m sorry about your Dad.  Grief is just hard, even without the legal headaches. So, here’s a short answer: First, you don’t have to hire an attorney, but it might be helpful and you can use the trust’s assets to pay for that time. Many trust administration attorneys would meet with you for an hour or two to  help you feel more oriented and less overwhelmed. Second, you might find a book that I co-wrote helpful (shameless self-promotion alert) since we wrote it, basically, for you: The Trustee’s Legal Companion is a step by step guide to administering a trust on your own. Third, the basic things you will need to do are send out a notice to all the heirs and beneficiaries, inventory the trust’s assets, pay all of the debts and taxes, and, when all that’s done, you can distribute the assets to the beneficiaries of the trust.

Will or Trust, Which is Better?

courthouse_2Dear Liza: My husband and I have one adult daughter – 20 years old.  We are in our 60’s and want to set up a will or a trust to ensure that 100% of our property and investments goes to our daughter, and that she inherits the assets with the least amount of taxes/probate as possible. What’s better a Will or a Trust? I don’t know what state you live in, and that makes this a hard question to answer completely. Here’s why: the value of doing a living trust depends on the cost and inconvenience of probate in your state.

Both a Will and a trust can ensure that your property passes to your daughter. Both a Will and a trust can incorporate tax planning to minimize any estate taxes that might be due at the death of the second of you (though these days, you’d have to have more than $10 million before worrying about the estate tax, so let’s assume that this is not an issue for you).  Really, the difference between which kind of an estate plan to create isn’t so much a “what” question; it’s really a “how” question, as in “how much” and “how long” will it take to settle your estates.

This is because a Will requires a probate proceeding before a distribution to your daughter, while a trust will allow you to bypass probate.  This means that if you do a Will, and your estate exceeds the small estates threshold in your state, your daughter won’t inherit anything until the court issues an order for distribution, which is how a probate ends. If you do a trust, and the trust is properly funded at your death, holding title to your major assets, your daughter will be able to inherit those assets as soon as they’ve been identified, taxes and creditors have been paid, and all of the beneficiaries and heirs have been notified.

In states that have adopted the Uniform Probate Code, currently that is 18 states, click here for a list of these, probate has been streamlined and is relatively inexpensive. In states that have not adopted this code, like the one that I practice in,  probate takes longer and costs far more than it costs to administer most living trusts. So, in order to sort out what’s the best estate plan for you, you need to find out the cost and delay in going through probate where you live. If you live in a state where probate is relatively easy and fast, you should be fine with just a Will. If you live in a state where probate is expensive and slow, a trust will be the better choice.

Who Can Order Death/Birth Certificates?

Last WillDear Liza: My uncle just died and I and a cousin are co-executors and equal co-heirs. A will is known to exist in a safe deposit box, but we have neither keys nor legal permission to open the box. There are no disputes and the estate is certainly below the tax level.The Mexican authorities seem to want a Birth Certificate in order to issue a Death Cert. As a niece, I am not entitled to get one, and there is no closer relative. What do I do? While it is true that only close family members can order vital records, you, as the executor, are also entitled to order them. In addition, an attorney that is working with you can also order such vital records. In California, where I practice, you must submit a sworn statement saying that you are the executor, and many states have a similar system.  You can contact the county vital records office where your uncle was born to request his birth certificate. Here’s a link to a commercial service that makes ordering such documents easy as well. Also, I would ask the bank what the rules are in your state for opening that safe deposit box. In my state, there’s a law that allows bank officials to open the box for the sole purpose of removing a Will, since there’s a certain chicken-and-egg problem if the executor must have the Will to be authorized to open that box.

Who Pays Taxes on an IRA?

tax dollarsDear Liza,  I am the personal representative for my mother’s estate in Maryland.  My mother, who is deceased, was the beneficiary of a small IRA. My mother’s estate is to be divided among her three grown daughters, myself included.  Who pays the tax on the IRA when it is withdrawn? The beneficiaries (you and your sisters) will be responsible for the income tax due on the IRA when you withdraw it. You will each get what’s called an “Inherited IRA.”  Check with your plan administrator to find out what your options are for those withdrawals. You probably will have to withdraw the money within five years of your mother’s death, you will definitely have to start withdrawing the money within the first year.

How long can custodial accounts last?

Stock PhotoDear Liza: If I’d like to designate my young child as beneficiary on a retirement account and bank account by naming a custodian under CUTMA, how do I specify that I want the custodial account(s) to last until my child is 25? Naming a custodian under CUTMA (which stands for California Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) for a gift to a child under the age of eighteen is an excellent idea. If you don’t, and you just name a minor directly as a beneficiary, and if the gift is more than $5,000, a guardian of the estate will have to be named by a court before the financial institution will release the funds.

But, clearly, you already know this, or you wouldn’t have asked! And you also know that a CUTMA account can last longer than age 18. In California, where I’m licensed to practice, the longest you can make a CUTMA account last for a gift made during your lifetime is 21. A CUTMA account can last to age 25 only for gifts made in a Will or a trust, or on a beneficiary designation that applies after death.

The way you’d do this is to write down: “________(THE ADULT), as custodian for ________(THE MINOR) until age 25 under the California Uniform Transfers to Minors Act” on the beneficiary form.

All states except Vermont and South Carolina have adopted the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act law, which allows you to name a custodian for a minor’s property. Some states terminate such accounts at 18, most terminate at 21, and some, like California, allow them to last to age 25 in certain circumstances. Here’s a link to a guide to all of the states that have adopted this law and the age limits applicable in each state.