Category Archives: Estate Planning Basics

I Inherited a House, Now What?

Dear Liza: My 90 yr. old mother recently died and I inherited her home, her only significant asset.  I  am preparing the Affidavit-Death of Trustee.  Does this put the title to the house in my name or do I also need a Quitclaim deed?  Do I need to create a new trust of my own or can it be left in the current one as I am a co-trustee? Sorry to hear about your Mom.  You are now engaging in what’s called “Trust Administration.”  The Affidavit Death of Trustee says that you are now the successor Trustee of your mother’s trust. (That means you have the legal authority to act under the trust with respect to the real property.) The next step for you is to then record a Trustee’s Deed transferring the property from that trust to yourself as an individual. (That gets the house to you outright and free of her trust.) If you want to set up a living trust, do that.  Then you’ll transfer the house from your own name to yourself, as Trustee of the new trust by recording a Trust Transfer Deed.  You can’t just leave the house in your mother’s trust, because now that she’s died, that trust is irrevocable and can’t be amended or changed.  Also, as Trustee, you’re just the manager of the assets, not the owner. You can use Nolo’s resources to create your own trust or work with an estate planner, that’s up to you.

Should I add my son to the title of my house?

Dear Liza: I thought about putting my son on the title of my house so he would have additional financial support. I’m not just real comfortable with that idea. I know creditors can and do go after people with ownership to a home.My son is doing well, but he does have a large student loan he needs to repay. What do you think about my adding him to the title of my house?  I think you should listen to that inner voice that isn’t comfortable with the idea.  You are absolutely right that adding him to the title puts your assets at risk to his creditors.   Also, if you put him on title, you are making a taxable gift to him of one-half the value of the house and you should report that on a gift tax return by April 15th of the following year. (You won’t owe any gift tax, most likely, because at the moment you can give up to $5.12 million without having to pay gift tax, but you still have to report any gift over $13,000.)  Finally, he will get your one-half of the house with a capital gains tax basis of what you paid for that house (and I’m guessing it’s appreciated since then.)  If he ever does sell it, he’ll owe capital gains taxes on the amount it’s appreciated since you purchased it.  You can leave him the house at your death, if that’s what you want to do, but for now, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Amending a Living Trust

Dear Liza:  My mom and dad set up a revocable living trust and now dad has passed away. Can my mom amend it?  My answer is: Maybe. If your parents set up a trust that’s pretty common for married couples, in which the trust is divided into two trusts after the first spouse dies, your mother can’t amend the trust that holds your father’s assets.  She can, however, amend the trust that holds her assets, which is revocable during her lifetime.  This is called an A/B Trust.  To find out if your parents have that kind of trust, find the section that says what happens after the first spouse dies. If it says to divide the assets into a ‘Bypass Trust” and a “Survivor’s Trust” or a “Credit Trust” and a “Marital Trust,” then your parents established an A/B trust.  However, if that section says something like the assets are to be held in a revocable trust for the survivor’s benefit, then your mom can amend the entire trust (because it was never divided into two trusts).

Selecting Professional Executors

Hello Liza, My husband and I need to update our wills, they are terribly out of date.  Our dilemma is around the question of who should be Executor/Co-Executor of the estate. Obviously we would be the executors of one an others estates, however, if something were to happen to both of us, we need a third party Executor/Co-Executor.  We have no obvious relatives, or even close friends that we feel could ask to be an Executor.   We’ve understand that a law firm, bank, financial planner, etc.can act as an Executor (or co-Executor).  Our question is, what is the financial obligation for doing so?  Trust companies, trust departments of banks, and individuals, called professional fiduciaries, can serve as the executor of your estate.  There’s no up front fee for nominating an institution or professional to serve in that capacity. They would charge the estate a fee for their services if they are appointed to serve after the death of the second of you.  Often, these fees are a percentage of the estate. If your estate goes through probate, your executor is awarded statutory fees based on state law, which are usually a percentage of the value of the estate.  Attorneys sometimes serve in this capacity, but, at least in the state where I practice (California) there are strict rules about doing so, because in the past unscrupulous lawyers wrote themselves into client’s documents to generate future fees. Financial advisors often cannot serve due to conflict of interest rules in their companies, but some can.  I would advise you to ask your local bank or financial advisor what their fees would be for this service, or if they can recommend anyone in your area who could serve.

Trusts and Pour Over Wills

Dear Liza,  My husband and I are having a disagreement about how to set up our living trust. (We are using online trust software.) He says that our will designates how to disperse the trust, after both of us die and the two designated trustees who are in charge of the trust will need to follow the will’s direction and that the trust is merely a holder of property and we don’t “need” to add all the beneficiaries to the trust document, that the will suffices. I say that we need to designate all the beneficiaries in the trust itself and clarify that all the property in the trust, unless specifically designated otherwise, will be inherited equally by our six children and that the will is for designating who gets the red pot or the carpet, etc., that sort of thing. Who’s right? So, one of the really nice things about being an estate planning attorney is that I hardly ever have to weigh in on marital disputes. On this one, though, I’m on your side. As a general rule, a living trust is designed to hold your property that would otherwise be subject to a probate proceeding at the death of the second of you–usually your house and your large brokerage and bank accounts. The assets in that trust pass by the terms of the trust itself. The ‘Trustees can’t follow the instructions in the Will, they have to follow what the trust says.

 The Will, in this scenario, is designed to transfer any assets that you owned at death that weren’t in the trust into the trust at that point. That’s why this Will is often called a ‘pour-over’ Will– like the saucer under a teacup, it picks up the property you’ve left outside of the trust and pours it into the trust (the cup) after your death. Often, too, your tangible personal property (jewelry, furniture, red pot, clothes, etc) are distributed under the terms of the Will, but sometimes these assets also pass into the trust to be distributed there.  So, make the trust the document that contains your wishes for the distribution of your estate, and let the Will just do the cleanup job for you.

Lifetime Gifts

Dear Liza: My friend has a stock portfolio she wants to give me before she dies.  She had cancer and only has a few months to live.  She wants to give it to me now to avoid the whole estate thing.  The total is about $220,000.  Do I have to pay gift tax if she transfers the portfolio to me in kind?  I am sorry to hear that your friend is so ill.  She can give you that portfolio, but it might not be the most tax-effective way to do it.  If she gives you the portfolio before she dies, she (or her estate) must report the gift on a gift tax return by April 15th of the following year. She won’t owe any gift tax on the transfer, because in 2012, each of us can give up to $5.12 million dollars free of gift tax, but any gift over the annual gift tax exclusion amount of $13,000 must be reported on that gift tax return.  If you later sell any of that portfolio, though, you will owe capital gains taxes on the difference between your friend’s basis in that stock and the sales price.   For example, if your friend owned stock in Y Corp., that she purchased for $1 dollar a share in 1982, and that stock is worth $100/share in 2013, you will owe capital gains on that $99/share rise in value.  Alternatively, if she gives you that portfolio upon her death, you will inherit it at the current fair market value for capital gains tax purposes.  In other words, if that Y Corp. stock is worth $100/share when your friend dies, and you later sell it at that price, you will owe zero in capital  gains taxes.  That portfolio will, however, be part of her taxable estate at her death, so, depending upon her other assets, her estate may or may not have to pay estate tax on those assets.  (Currently, she can give up to $5.12 million at death free of estate tax.) So, you and your friend should seek the advice of an accountant to see whether it makes sense for your friend to give you that stock via a Will or a trust upon her death, or during her lifetime.

Using Disclaimers in Estate Planning

Dear Liza: I am the executor of my aunt’s estate in NJ.   She left a number of payable-on-deaht (POD) accounts to me  but her intention was that most of these funds/accounts be given to charity.  I am trying to avoid paying estate and inheritance tax on them, because then the charities will get less.  Is there a way I can redirect them to the charities before they come to me so as to avoid the taxes? When someone gives you something in a Will, or by beneficiary  designation,you can always say, “No Thank You” and not accept the assets, provided you don’t make use of the asset first, and that you do this within 9 months of the death. This is called ‘disclaiming’ the assets. Legally, it’s as if you died first — the asset is then given to whomever is named as the next beneficiary.  In that case, the gift is from the person who died, not from you.  What you can’t do, however, is direct where the assets go next. So, if your aunt left a Will that said everything in her estate was to go to you, then to charity if you did not survive her, your disclaimer would direct those assets to the charity, via that Will. However, if your aunt’s Will did not specify charities as the next beneficiaries, or did not have a Will and simply left those payable-on-death accounts directly to you, and named no second beneficiary, the only way you can give those assets to charity would be to do it directly as a gift from you. If you disclaimed those assets, they would pass to your aunt’s surviving heirs under New Jersey’s law of intestate succession, not to charity. You can give $13,000 per year to any beneficiary free of the gift tax, or $26,000 if you are married and your spouse agrees to make the same gift.

Does Putting Properties into a Living Trust Trigger Reassessment?

Dear Liza: When putting property into a Living Trust does it trigger a tax reassessment under Prop 13? My parents purchased their property in 1968 and we didn’t want moving it into a Living Trust to trigger a reassessment.  Nope. If your parents put their house into their own living trust, no reassessement is triggered.  There are no ‘new’ owners, really.  It’s just your parents owning the property under a different legal title. Putting property into a revocable trust for your own benefit is an exception to Prop. 13 reassessment. When your parents record the deed changing title to the trust, they will also need to file what’s called a Preliminary Change of Ownership Report (PCOR). This form tells the county assessor about the transaction. There are a whole list of checkboxes on the first page of the form, and one box is that the transfer is to or from a living trust.  Once the assessor sees that, they know that they can’t reassess the property. Note: This is an issue for my California readers. Proposition 13 freezes property tax rates at a value that’s set when the property is purchased by a new owner.  Needless to say, those with low property tax rates do NOT want to see that rate reassessed while they still own the property.

Letters documenting Incapacity

Dear Liza: My 91 year old mother had a stroke in April. Her living trust designates my brother as Medical Power of Attorney and myself as Financial POA.   Her lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating our mother is mentally incapacitated before he can talk to both of us about her trust.   Why would a lawyer ask for them? Wasn’t the point of the trust to make everything hassle free?  Your mother’s lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating that your mother is incapable of managing her own affairs because, most likely, the trust states that you and your brother can act as successor Trustees only upon your mother’s incapacity. The trust probably also states that incapacity is to be determined by two letters from physicians stating, under penalty of perjury, that your mother is incapacitated. Many trusts are drafted this way. The idea is to protect your mother from having her powers as Trustee taken away unless she really can’t manage her own affairs.  Ask the attorney to provide you with letters for the doctors to sign — that shouldn’t be a big deal if, in fact, she isn’t able to manage.

Stuff in the House: Tangible Personal Property

Dear Liza: My mother is 79 years old and is on social security.  She and her brother own a house together.  At this point, I really don’t care if her brother has control of the property.  But I do care if the contents of the house are legally given to him.  Does he have rights to the contents of the furniture in the house?   Does my mother need a Will and would that Will prevent her estate from going into probate?   Your mother’s furniture and furnishings are what’s called “tangible personal property.” This is lawyer-speak for all the stuff in her house: pots, pans, rubber bands, and the couch. That property will pass to you and your siblings if your mother executes a simple Will and gives her tangible personal property and any other assets she owns to her children.  If the house is owned in joint tenancy, the surviving joint tenant (your uncle) would own the property upon your mother’s death, by what’s called “right of survivorship.”  The house passes to him because of the way he and your mother owned it.  But the tangibles, and anything else your mother owned other than the house, would pass to her kids via her Will.  If all she really has at this point are those tangibles, no probate would be required because states exclude small estates from the necessity of a probate proceeding.  Nolo offers a simple Will that would do the trick.