Blog

The Ins and Outs of Collecting Life Insurance Policy Proceeds

Unlike many estate assets, if you’re looking to collect the proceeds of a life insurance policy, the process is fairly simple, provided you’re named as the beneficiary. That said, following a loved one’s death, the whole world can feel like it’s falling apart, and it’s helpful to know exactly what steps need to be taken to access the insurance funds as quickly and easily as possible during this trying time.

And if you’ve been dependent on the deceased for regular financial support and/or are responsible for paying funeral expenses, the need to access insurance proceeds can sometimes be downright urgent.

Here, we’ve outlined the typical procedure for claiming and collecting life insurance proceeds, along with discussing how beneficiaries can deal with common hiccups in the process. However, because all life insurance policies are different and some involve more complexities than others, it’s always a good idea to consult with a Personal Family Lawyer® if you need extra help or guidance.

Filing a claim

To start the life insurance claims process, you first need to identify who the beneficiary of the life insurance policy is—are you the beneficiary, or is a trust set up to handle the claim for you?

We often recommend that life insurance proceeds be paid to a trust, not outright to a beneficiary. This way, the life insurance proceeds can be used by the beneficiary, but the funds are protected from lawsuits and/or creditors that the beneficiary may be involved with—even a future divorce.

In the event that a trust is the beneficiary, contact us so that we can create a certificate of trust that you (or the trustee, if the trustee is someone other than you) can send to the life insurance company, along with a death certificate when one is available.

In any case, you (or the trustee) will notify the insurance company of the policyholder’s death, either by contacting a local agent or by following the instructions on the company’s website. If the policy was provided through an employer, you may need to contact their workplace first, and someone there will put you in touch with the appropriate representative.

Many insurance companies allow you to report the death over the phone or by sending in a simple form and not require the actual death certificate at this stage. Depending on the cause of death, it can sometimes take weeks for the death certificate to be available, so this simplified reporting speeds up the process.

From there, the insurance company typically sends the beneficiary (or the trustee of the trust named as beneficiary) more in-depth forms to fill out, along with further instructions about how to proceed. Some of the information you’re likely to be asked to provide during the claims process include the deceased’s date of birth, date and place of death, their Social Security number, marital status, address, as well as other personal data.

Your state’s vital records office creates the death certificate, and it will either send the certificate directly to you or route it through your funeral/mortuary provider. Once you’ve received a certified copy of the death certificate, you’ll send it to the insurance company, along with the other completed forms requested.

Multiple beneficiaries
If more than one adult beneficiary was named, each person should provide his or her own signed and notarized claim form. If any of the primary beneficiaries died before the policyholder, an alternate/contingent beneficiary can claim the proceeds, but he or she will need to send in the death certificates of both the policyholder and the primary beneficiary.

Minors
While policyholders are free to name anyone as a beneficiary, when minor children are named, it creates serious complications, as most insurance companies will not allow a minor child to receive life insurance benefits directly until they reach the age of majority. And the age of majority varies between states—with some it’s 18, and others it’s 21.

If a child is named as a beneficiary and has yet to reach the age of majority, the claim proceeds will be paid to the child’s legal guardian, who will be responsible for managing those funds until the child comes of age. Given this, in the event a minor is named you’ll need to go to court to be appointed as legal guardian, even if you’re the child’s parent. This is why we recommend never naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, even as a backup to the primary beneficiary.

Rather than naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, it’s often better to set up a trust to receive the proceeds. By doing that, the proceeds would be paid into the trust, and whomever is named as trustee will follow the steps above to collect the insurance benefits, put them in the trust, and manage the funds for the child’s benefit.

Whatever you decide, you should consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to determine the best options for passing along your life insurance benefits and other assets to minor children.

Insurance claim payment
Provided you fill out the forms properly and include a certified copy of the death certificate, insurance companies typically pay out life insurance claims quickly. In fact, some claims are paid within one to two weeks from the start of the process, and rarely do claims take more than 60 days to be paid. Most insurance companies will offer you the option to collect the proceeds via a mailed check or transfer the funds electronically directly to your account.

Sometimes an insurance company will request you to send in a completed W-9 form (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification) from the IRS in order to process a claim. Most of the time, a W-9 is requested only if there is some question or issue with the records, such as having an address provided in a claim form that doesn’t match the one on file.

A W-9 is simply a way for the insurance company to verify information to prevent fraudulent activity. To this end, don’t be alarmed if you’re asked for a W-9. It’s a common verification practice, and it doesn’t automatically mean the company suspects you of fraud or plans to deny your claim.

While collecting life insurance proceeds is a fairly simple process, it’s always a good idea to consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® if you have any questions or need help to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible during the often-chaotic period following a loved one’s death.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 2

Last week, we shared the first part of this series explaining the powers and duties that come with serving as trustee.   Following in part two, we discuss the rest of a trustee’s core responsibilities. Click here to see Part 1:  http://rantala.com/blog/2018/07/19/before-agreeing-to-serve-as-trustee-carefully-consider-the-duties-and-obligations-involved-part-1/

Being asked to serve as trustee can be a huge honor—but it’s also a major responsibility. Indeed, the job entails a wide array of complex duties, and trustees are both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability.

To this end, you should thoroughly understand exactly what your role as trustee requires before agreeing to accept the position. Last week, we highlighted three of a trustee’s primary functions, and here we continue with that list, starting with one of the most labor-intensive

of all duties—managing and accounting for a trust’s assets.

Manage and account for trust assets

Before a trustee can sell, invest, or make distributions to beneficiaries, he or she must take control of, inventory, and value all trust assets. Ideally, this happens as soon as possible after the death of the grantor in the privacy of a lawyer’s office. As long as assets are titled in the name of the trust, there’s no need for court involvement—unless a beneficiary or creditor forces it with a claim against the trust.

In the best case scenario, the person who created the trust and was the original trustee—usually the grantor—will have maintained an up-to-date inventory of all trust assets. And if the estate is extensive, gathering those assets can be a major undertaking, so contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to help review the trust and determine the best course of action.

The value of some assets, like financial accounts, securities, and insurance, will be easy to determine. But with other property—real estate, vehicles, businesses, artwork, furniture, and jewelry—a trustee may need to hire a professional appraiser to determine those values. With the assets secured and valued, the trustee must then identify and pay the grantor’s creditors and other debts.

Be careful to ensuring that regularly scheduled payments, such as mortgages, property taxes, and insurance, are promptly paid, or trustees risk personal liability for late payments and/or other penalties. Trustees are also required to prepare and file the grantor’s income and estate tax returns. This includes the final income tax return for the year of the decedent’s death and any prior years’ returns on extension, along with filing an annual return during each subsequent year the trust remains open.

For high-value estates, trustees may have to file a federal estate tax return or possibly a state estate tax return. However, Trump’s new tax law of 2017 doubled the estate tax exemption to $11.2 million, so very few estates will be impacted. But keep in mind, this new exemption is only valid through 2025, when it will return to $5.6 million.

During this entire process, it’s vital that trustees keep a strict accounting of every transaction (bills paid and income received) made using the trust’s assets, no matter how small. In fact, if a trustee fails to fully pay the trust’s debts, taxes, and expenses before distributing assets to beneficiaries, he or she can be held personally liable if there are insufficient assets to pay for outstanding estate expenses.

Given this, it’s crucial to work with a Personal Family Lawyer® and a qualified accountant to properly account for and pay all trust-related expenses and debts as well as ensure all tax returns are filed on behalf of the trust.

Personally administer the trust

While trustees are nearly always permitted to hire outside advisers like lawyers, accountants, and even professional trust administration services, trustees must personally communicate with those advisors and be the one to make all final decisions on trust matters. After all, the grantor chose you as trustee because they value your judgment.

So even though trustees can delegate much of the underlying legwork, they’re still required to serve as the lead decision maker. What’s more, trustees are ultimately responsible if any mistakes are made. In the end, a trustee’s full range of powers, duties, and discretion will depend on the terms of the trust, so always refer to the trust for specific instructions when delegating tasks and/or making tough decisions. And if you need help understanding what the trust says, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for support.

Clear communication with beneficiaries

To keep them informed and updated as to the status of the trust, trustees are required to provide beneficiaries with regular information and reports related to trust matters. Typically, trustees provide such information on an annual basis, but again, the level of communication depends on the trust’s terms.

In general, trustees should provide annual status reports with complete and accurate accounting of the trust’s assets. Moreover, trustees must permit beneficiaries to personally inspect trust property, accounts, and any related documents if requested. Additionally, trustees must provide an annual tax return statement (Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who’s taxed on income earned by the trust.

Entitled to reasonable fees for services rendered

Given such extensive duties and responsibilities, trustees are entitled to receive reasonable fees for their services. Oftentimes, family members and close friends named as trustee choose not to accept any payment beyond what’s required to cover trust expenses, but this all depends on the trustee’s particular situation and relationship with the grantor and/or beneficiaries.

What’s more, determining what’s “reasonable,” can itself be challenging. Entities like accounting firms, lawyers, banks, and trust administration companies typically charge a percentage of the funds under their management or a set fee for their time. In the end, what’s reasonable is based on the amount of work involved, the level of funds in the trust, the trust’s other expenses, and whether or not the trustee was chosen for their professional experience. Consult with us if you need guidance about what would be considered reasonable in your specific circumstance.

Since the trustee’s duties are comprehensive, complex, and foreign to most people, if you’ve been asked to serve as trustee, it’s critical you have a professional advisor who can give you a clear and accurate assessment of what’s required of you before you accept the position. And if you do choose to serve as trustee, it’s even more important that you have someone who can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process.

In either case, you can rely on us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to offer the most accurate advice, guidance, and assistance with all trustee duties and functions. We can ensure that you’ll effectively fulfill all of the grantor’s final wishes—and do so in the most efficient and risk-free manner possible. Contact us today to learn more.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Before Agreeing to Serve as Trustee, Carefully Consider the Duties and Obligations Involved—Part 1

If a friend or family member has asked you to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death, you should feel honored—this means they consider you among the most honest, reliable, and responsible people they know.

However, being a trustee is not only a great honor, it’s also a major responsibility. The job can entail a wide array of complex duties, and you’re both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability. Given this, agreeing to serve as trustee is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and you should thoroughly understand exactly what the role requires before giving your answer.

Of course, a trustee’s responsibility can vary enormously depending on the size of the estate, the type of trust involved, and the trust’s specific terms and instructions. But every trust comes with a few core requirements, and here we’ll highlight some of the key responsibilities.

That said, one of the first things to note about serving as trustee is that the job does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, trustees are not just allowed to seek outside assistance from professionals in these fields, they’re highly encouraged to, and funding to pay for such services will be set aside for this in the trust.

To this end, don’t let the complicated nature of a trustee’s role scare you off. Indeed, there are numerous professionals and entities that specialize in trust administration, and people with no experience with these tasks successfully handle the role all of the time. And besides, depending on who nominated you, declining to serve may not be a realistic or practical option.

Adhere to the trust’s terms
Every trust is unique, and a trustee’s obligations and powers depend largely on what the trust creator, or grantor, allows for, so you should first carefully review the trust’s terms. The trust document outlines all the specific duties you’ll be required to fulfill as well as the appropriate timelines and discretion you’ll have for fulfilling these tasks.

Depending on the size of the estate and the types of assets held by the trust, your responsibilities as trustee can vary greatly. Some trusts are relatively straightforward, with few assets and beneficiaries, so the entire job can be completed within a few weeks or months. Others, especially those containing numerous assets and minor-aged beneficiaries, can take decades to completely fulfill. To ensure you understand exactly what a particular trust’s terms require of you as trustee, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®.

Act in the best interests of the beneficiaries
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the named beneficiaries at all times, and they must not use the position for personal gain. Moreover, they cannot commingle their own funds and assets with those of the trust, nor may they profit from the position beyond the fees set aside to pay for the trusteeship.

If the trust involves multiple beneficiaries, the trustee must balance any competing interests between the various beneficiaries in an impartial and objective manner for the benefit of them all. In some cases, grantors try to prevent conflicts between beneficiaries by including very specific instructions about how and when assets should be distributed, and if so, you must follow these directions exactly as spelled out.

However, some trusts leave asset distribution decisions up to the trustee’s discretion. If so, when deciding how to make distributions, the trustee must carefully evaluate each beneficiary’s current needs, future needs, other sources of income, as well as the potential impact the distribution might have on the other beneficiaries. Such duties should be taken very seriously, as beneficiaries can take legal action against trustees if they can prove he or she violated their fiduciary duties and/or mismanaged the trust.

Invest trust assets prudently
Many trusts contain interest-bearing securities and other investment vehicles. If so, the trustee is responsible not only for protecting and managing these assets, they’re also obligated to make them productive—which typically means selling and/or investing assets to generate income.

In doing so, the trustee must exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when investing trust assets, otherwise known as the “prudent investor” rule. The trustee should always consider the specific purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other aspects of the trust when meeting this standard.

Trustees must invest prudently and diversify investments appropriately to ensure they’re in the best interests of all beneficiaries. Given this, trustees are forbidden from investing trust assets in overly speculative or high-risk stocks and/or other investment vehicles. Unless specifically spelled out in the trust terms, it will be up to the trustee’s discretion to determine the investment strategies that are best suited for the trust’s goals and beneficiaries. If so, you should hire a financial advisor familiar with trusts to help guide you.

Given the unpredictable nature of the economy, it’s important to point out that poor performance of trust investments alone isn’t enough to prove a trustee breached his or her duties to invest prudently. Provided the trustee can show the underlying investment strategies were sound and reasonable, the mere fact that the investments lost money doesn’t make them legally liable.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series explaining the scope of powers and duties that come with serving as trustee.  Click here to view Part 2:  

http://rantala.com/blog/2018/07/27/before-agreeing-to-serve-as-trustee-carefully-consider-the-duties-and-obligations-involved-part-2/

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Donate Appreciated Assets to Charity Instead of Selling Outright For Tax and Income Benefits Using a Charitable Remainder Trust

If you have highly appreciated assets like stock and real estate you want to sell, it may make sense to use a charitable remainder trust (CRT) to avoid income and estate taxes—all while creating a lifetime income stream for yourself or your family AND supporting your favorite charity. 

A CRT is a “split-interest” trust, meaning it provides financial benefits to both the charity and a non-charitable beneficiary. With CRTs, the non-charitable beneficiary—you, your child, spouse, or another heir—receives annual income from the trust, and whatever assets “remain” at the end of the donor’s lifetime (or a fixed period up to 20 years), pass to the named charity(ties).

How a CRT works
You work with us to set up a CRT by naming a trustee, an income beneficiary, and a charitable beneficiary. The trustee will sell, manage, and invest the trust’s assets to produce income that’s paid to you or another beneficiary.
The trustee can be yourself, a charity, another person, or a third-party entity. However, the trustee is not only responsible for seeing that your wishes are carried out properly, but also for managing the trust assets in accordance with complex state and federal laws, so be sure the trustee is well familiar with trust administration.
With the CRT set up, you transfer your appreciated assets into the trust, and the trustee sells it. Normally, this would generate capital gains taxes, but instead, you get a charitable deduction for the donation and face no capital gains when the assets are sold.

Once the appreciated assets are sold, the proceeds (which haven’t been taxed) are invested to produce income. As long as it remains in the trust, the income isn’t subject to taxes, so you’re earning even more on pre-tax dollars.

Income options
You have two options for how the trust income is paid out. You can receive an annual fixed payment using a “charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT).” With this option, your income will not change, regardless of the trust’s investment performance.

Or you can be paid a fixed percentage of the trust’s assets using a “charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT),” whereby the payouts fluctuate depending on the trust’s investment performance and value.

Tax benefits

Right off the bat, as mentioned above, you can take an income tax deduction within the year the trust was created for the value of your donation—limited to 30% of adjusted gross income. You can carry over any excess into subsequent tax returns for up to five years.

And again, profits from appreciated assets sold by the trustee aren’t subject to capital gains taxes while they’re in the trust. Plus, when the trust assets finally pass to the charity, that donation won’t be subject to estate taxes.

You will pay income tax on income from the CRT at the time it’s distributed. Whether that tax is capital gains or ordinary income depends on where the income came from—distributions of principal are tax free. 

If you have highly appreciated assets you’d like to sell while minimizing tax impact, maximizing income, and benefiting charity, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, so we can find the best planning options for you.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Appoint a Guardian to Keep Your Kids In Safe Hands At All Times

Probably every parent who has watched the news lately has felt the heartbreak  over what’s happening to immigrant families at the border due to the Trump administration’s immigration regulations. 

As you likely know, the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy has led to the separation of more than 2,300 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May and June 2018 alone.

Putting politics aside, with horror stories of toddlers being ripped from their mothers’ arms and audio recordings of children crying and begging for their parents, we imagine it would be hard for anyone with their own kids not to be disturbed.

What’s more, perhaps these events have got you thinking about how it would be for your children to be taken into custody of strangers. And if not, let this be the moment you willingly feel the fear and decide to use your privilege of being able to make choices on behalf of your children to ensure their well-being and care by the people you want no matter what happens.

It can happen to your family
Even though most people think that something like that could never happen to their family, they’re totally wrong. While your kids almost certainly won’t be taken into custody by U.S. border agents, your children could be taken into the care of strangers if something happens to you—even if your family or friends are on the scene.

But you can do something to protect your children and ensure they’re always in the care of people you know, love, and trust. If you use this atrocity against families to take action on behalf of your own kids—instead of merely feeling numbness and paralysis over not knowing what to do—these events can inspire you to do the things you know you must in order to properly take care of your family.

Understand the risk
While it may seem like a long shot, the consequences are serious enough that you must consider the real possibility of what could happen and ensure you’ve taken right actions to protect your loved ones. Let’s say you and your spouse have gone out to dinner together and left the kids with a babysitter. But on the way home, you’re in a car accident. The police will get to your house, find your children home with a babysitter, and have no choice but to take your kids into the care of the authorities (strangers) until they can figure out what to do.

This is the case even if you have friends or family living nearby. If you haven’t left proper legal documentation, the authorities have no option but to call child protective services—that is, unless you’ve legally given them an alternative. This is true, for example, even if you have named godparents. You must give the authorities a legal basis for keeping your children with the close friends or family you designate.

Without your action, when the babysitter answers the door, she’s in complete shock and willing to stay with your kids while the authorities find a relative to take them. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the legal authority to care for the children—even temporarily—so the police have no choice but to call child protective services. These authorities will take your children into custody until they can locate and/or appoint the proper guardian.

Alternatively, maybe you have plenty of family, who’d want to take custody of your children if something were to happen to you. Perhaps some of them even live close by, so the authorities could locate them easily. It may be that even more than one family member would want to take custody of your children (and the financial resources you’re leaving behind for them).

We’ve seen what happens when well-meaning family members—who think they’d be the best choice as caretaker for their young relatives—go to battle in the name of love. It isn’t pretty. In such a situation, it takes years of legal fighting, making lawyers wealthy, while the children are stuck in the middle. In almost every case, each side fighting for the care of the children feels certain they’re doing what the parents would’ve wanted and what’s best for the children.

Know your options and your responsibility

The sad thing is, this all can be completely (and very easily) prevented. However, to ensure your children are never taken into the care of strangers—or put in the middle of a family conflict—you must take action now. Please do not leave this to chance. You have the privilege to be able to guarantee that your children are never taken into the care of strangers—or into the care of anyone you would not choose—but you must take action now to exercise that privilege.

Perhaps you believe this could never happen to your family because your family would never fight over your children or because you’ve named close friends as godparents. But why take that risk, when it’s so easy to do the right thing by the people you love more than anything?

And if you think you’ve already done the right thing because you have a will that names legal guardians for your children, think again. We’ve found that in most cases, even parents who worked with a lawyer to name legal guardians have made at least one of six common mistakes that leave their children at risk.

These mistakes are made because unfortunately, most lawyers do not know what’s necessary for planning and ensuring the well-being and care of minor children.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ve been trained by the author of the best-selling book, Wear Clean Underwear!: A Fast, Fun, Friendly, and Essential Guide to Legal Planning for Busy Parents, on legal planning for the unique needs of families with minor children at home. If you’ve already created a will, we can help you identify whether you’ve made any of the six common mistakes that could leave your children at risk. If you have not yet taken any action, we can help you take the first steps and make the very best decisions for the people you love.

 

Here’s how to get started

⇒ If you haven’t yet taken any action at all, we’ve created an easy-to-use website, where you can take the first steps to create legal documents naming long-term guardians for your children (the people you would want to raise your kids if you could not do so) absolutely free. Do it here now: https://mariannesrantalapc.kidsprotectionplan.com/

Afterward, call us for a comprehensive Family Wealth Planning Session to look at what else you may want to have in place to ensure the well-being and care of your children no matter what.

⇒ If you’ve already named long-term guardians in a will on your own or with a lawyer, we’ll review your existing legal documents and waive our normal $950 legal documents review fee to identify whether you’ve made any of the 6 common mistakes that could leave your children at risk. To activate this offer, simply call our office at (631) 627-3433. Tell us you’d like your existing plan reviewed, and you want to activate our “keep the children safe” special, and my team will waive the $950 plan-review fee.

Whatever your situation, you should take action now using one of our above services to make certain that your children are never taken into the care of strangers. You might think that such a thing could never happen to your family, but in these scary times, you can never be too safe.
 

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Create a Special Needs Trust to Protect the Financial Future of Your Child with Special Needs

It always surprises me to hear parents who have a child with special needs tell me that they were not aware of what they needed to do to ensure the future well-being and care of their child is properly handled. Or sometimes, they tell me they didn’t know they needed to do anything at all.

If that’s you, and you have a child with special needs at home, this article is for you. And if you have friends or family who have a child with special needs, please share this article with them.

Every parent who has a child with special needs must understand what’s needed to provide for the emotional, physical, and financial needs of their child, if and when something happens to them.

 

Naming guardians
Of course, the first and most critical step in ensuring the well-being and care of your child with special needs’ future is to name both short and long-term legal guardians to take custody of and care of your child, in the event of your death or incapacity. And as you well know, this responsibility doesn’t end at age 18, if your child will not grow into an adult who can independently care for him or herself.

While we understand this lifetime responsibility probably feels overwhelming, we’ve been told repeatedly by parents that naming legal guardians in writing and knowing their child will be cared for in the way they want, by the people they want, creates immense relief.

We frequently build in plans where the named guardians are properly instructed—and even incentivized—to give your child the same care you provide. For example, we’ve created plans whereby the named guardian is compensated for taking the child to dinner and the movies weekly, or doing something similar if this is something the child used to enjoy doing with his or her parents.

But without written instructions (and perhaps compensation) built into the plan, fun activities like this can often go by the wayside when you’re no longer available. For guidance on selecting legal guardians and properly instructing them to provide your child with special needs the same level of care and attention you do, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®.

Beyond naming a guardian, you’ll also need to provide financial resources to allow your child to live out his or her life in the manner you desire. This is where things can get tricky for children with special needs. In fact, it may seem like a “Catch-22” situation. You want to leave your child enough money to afford the support they need to live a comfortable life. Yet, if you leave money directly to a person with special needs, you risk disqualifying him or her for government benefits.

 

Special Needs Trusts
Fortunately, the government allows assets to be held in what’s known as a “special needs trust” to provide supplemental financial resources for a physically, mentally, or developmentally disabled child without affecting his or her eligibility for public healthcare and income assistance benefits.

However, the rules for such trusts are complicated and can vary greatly between different states, so you should work with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to create a comprehensive special needs trust that’s properly structured and appropriate for your child’s specific situation.

 

Setting up the trust
Funds from a special needs trust cannot be distributed directly to a beneficiary and must be disbursed to a third-party who’s responsible for administering the trust. Given this, when you initially set up the trust, you’ll likely be both the “grantor” (trust creator) and “trustee” (the person responsible for managing the trust), and your child with special needs is the trust’s “beneficiary.”

You’ll then name the person you want responsible for administering the trust’s funds once you’re no longer able to as “successor trustee.” To avoid conflicts of interest, overburdening the named guardian with too much responsibility, and provide checks and balances, it can sometimes be best to name someone other than your child’s guardian as trustee.

As the parent, you serve as the trustee until you die or become incapacitated, at which time the successor trustee takes over. Each person who serves as trustee is legally required to follow the trust’s terms and use its funds and property for the benefit of the individual with special needs.

And in all cases, you should name a series of successor trustees, which can even be a bank, trust company, or other professional fiduciary, as backups to your primary named trustee.

 

Placing money and property into a special needs trust
There are two ways to set up a special needs trust. In one situation, we build it into your revocable living trust, and it will arise, or spring up, upon your death. From there, assets that are held in your revocable living trust will be used to fund your child’s special needs trust.

In other cases, we can set up a special needs trust that acts as a vehicle for receiving and holding assets for your child now. This makes sense if you have parents or other relatives who want to give your child with special needs gifts sooner rather than later.

We’ll be dedicating a future article on the available estate planning options you can use to pass money to a special needs trust. Until then, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® if you need guidance on the planning vehicles that are best suited for this purpose.

 

The trustee’s responsibilities
Once the trust is funded, it’s the trustee’s job to use its funds to support the beneficiary without jeopardizing eligibility for government benefits. To handle this properly, the trustee must have a thorough understanding of how eligibility for such benefits works and stay current with the law.  The trustee is also required to pay the beneficiary’s taxes, keep detailed records, invest trust property, and stay current with the beneficiary’s needs.

Given this huge responsibility, it’s often best that you name a legal or financial professional who’s familiar with the complexities of the law as trustee or co-trustee, so they can properly handle the duties and not jeopardize eligibility.

If you need help creating a special needs trust for your child, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer ®. We can develop a sustainable living plan for your child with special needs that will provide her or him with the financial means they need to live a full life, while preserving their access to government benefits. Contact us today to get started.
 

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Squabbles Between Alan Thicke’s Heirs Highlight the Importance of Properly Drafted and Updated Estate Planning

In the 1980s, the late actor Alan Thicke played the wise-but-hip father figure and psychiatrist Dr. Jason Seaver in the sitcom Growing Pains. Following Alan’s sudden death in December 2016, with his children and widow battling over his estate, one can only wonder what sage advice Dr. Seaver would have had for Thicke’s heirs.

Alan collapsed and died from a heart attack at age 69, while playing ice hockey with his youngest son, Carter. Unlike some celebrities, he had a fairly comprehensive estate plan. But with three marriages, three sons from two of those unions, and an estate worth an estimated $40 million, the planning is proving insufficient to stave off family feuding.

Stepmom vs. Stepchildren
Specifically, Alan’s two oldest sons—Robin and Brennan—have been fighting his third wife, Tanya Callau Thicke, for almost two years. The first petition filed in California Superior Court in May 2016 by Robin and Brennan—who are co-trustees of their late father’s estate—sought clarification of conflicting terms in Alan’s living trust and a prenuptial agreement he and Tanya signed before getting married in 2005.

At issue was the division of Alan’s $3.5 million ranch in Carpinteria, where he and Tanya lived. The prenup states that Tanya would get 25% of his net estate, including a five-acre parcel of the ranch property. However, the trust—last updated in 2016—doesn’t grant her any ownership of the ranch, only the right to live there provided she pays all the expenses.

Robin and Brennan’s petition alleged that Tanya demanded a larger portion of Alan’s estate than she was allocated in the trust and that she planned to contest the validity of the prenuptial agreement.

Tanya claimed her stepsons’ legal claim was merely aimed at smearing her in the media, and she never had any intention of challenging the prenup. Other reports allege the petition was retaliation for Tanya’s refusal to allow the brothers to convert the ranch into a medical marijuana farm.
In September 2017, a judge rejected the sibling’s petition to block Tanya from challenging the prenup, finding there was no evidence she ever planned to take such action.

A Breach of Duties?
More recently in May 2018, Tanya filed papers accusing Robin and Brennan of violating their fiduciary duties as co-trustees. She claims they’re spending the estate assets recklessly, failing to pay her share of the inheritance, unfairly saddling her with taxes and other expenses that are not her responsibility, and failing to keep her clearly informed about estate proceedings.

One of her specific complaints asserts the brothers refused to reimburse her for a monument she placed at Alan’s gravesite. This claim was exacerbated by reports that the older brother Robin was reimbursed $105,000 for an elaborate memorial party he threw the night before his father’s burial.

Tanya plans to file a lawsuit against the siblings if they don’t meet her demands. And her suit may have merit, as trustees owe a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of beneficiaries and account for all financial transactions related to the trust.

Lessons Learned
Though we’ll have to wait and see how Robin and Brennan react to Tanya’s latest claim and how the court rules, the case highlights several important estate planning issues.

First, second (or more) marriages with children from a prior marriage are always at risk of going down the road of conflict. If you are in such a marriage, it’s critical we plan in advance to ensure the people you love have the best chance of loving each other after your incapacity or death.

Even with a trust in place, it’s vital the document is regularly updated to ensure it’s current and doesn’t conflict with other legal agreements, like the prenup in this case. Please contact us now if your plan has not been reviewed or updated within the past year.

Finally, the case demonstrates that a trust won’t stay private if the heirs have a conflict that results in court proceedings. One of a trust’s key benefits is that it keeps the contents of the estate confidential. But if a dispute ends up in court, the estate documents can be made public, exposing not only your assets, but all your family’s “dirty laundry” as well.


Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to get started. If you already have a plan in place, we can review and update it to avoid similar conflicts.


This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

What You Should Know About Guardianship—In Case A Parent or Loved One Becomes Incapacitated

Whether through illness, injury, or other means, anyone can require a guardian to become appointed if they become mentally incapacitated. In such cases, if there is no estate planning in place (or insufficient planning) to keep family or other loved one’s out of court, a guardianship, or conservatorship as it is sometimes called, must be established via a court process in the county probate court. 

Obtaining guardianship can be an extraordinarily challenging and an expensive process. It begins with filing a petition in court for guardianship and requesting the court declare the incapacitated person incompetent. In some cases, these types of filings are made “ex parte”, or in secret, and a guardianship can be established before family or close friends even know what’s happening. In other cases, such a filing can result in a heated dispute between family members and/or friends, who may claim they’d be better suited for the role. Given this, things can get quite costly very quickly.

Of course, this assumes these matters haven’t already been decided through proper and up-to-date estate planning, including a valid durable power of attorney and advance health care directives, which are the best methods for ensuring this massive responsibility is handled as effectively as possible. Sadly, most people don’t think of the costly possibility of incapacity and therefore leave their families at risk.

If you do have a loved one who needs a guardian, here are some of the things you’ll need to know:

Who can be appointed as guardian?
Unless specified in a valid legal document, any family member or other interested person can petition for guardianship—even a close friend can do it if they prove they’re best suited for the position. That said, most courts give preference to the ward’s spouse or other close family members. In some cases, the guardian is required to post a bond, which typically requires good credit and some level of deposit to be held in the event of the guardian’s wrongdoing. This bond requirement often disqualifies friends and family, who either don’t have good credit or the resources to post a bond.

If a relative or friend is not willing—or capable—of serving, the court will appoint a professional guardian or public guardian. This is one of the ways that an estate can be drained extremely quickly. If you want to hear more about how this can happen, read this terrifying article about the way public and professional guardians are stealing from our elders.
When are guardians appointed?
A guardian will only be appointed if a court determines there is enough evidence to show a person is mentally incapacitated, such that they can no longer make legal, financial, and/or health-care decisions.

What are a guardian’s responsibilities?
Depending on the extent of the ward’s mental capacity, a court-appointed guardian can be given near complete control over a person’s life and finances. Some of the most common duties include:

  • Paying the ward’s bills
  • Determining where they live
  • Monitoring their residence and living conditions
  • Providing consent for medical treatments
  • Deciding how their finances are handled, including how their assets are invested and if any assets should be liquidated
  • Managing real estate and other tangible personal property
  • Keeping detailed records of all their expenditures and other financial transactions
  • Making end-of-life and other palliative-care decisions
  • Reporting to the court about the ward’s status at least annually

 

The extent of duties the guardian is responsible for is up to the court, and the guardian will not be allowed to act in areas the court has not authorized. Moreover, guardians are required to seek the ward’s preferences whenever possible—though ultimately, the decision about what action to take will be in the guardian’s hands.

The court can also divide out responsibilities to multiple parties. For example, one person may oversee the financial decisions, while another handles living arrangements and health-care decisions. What’s more, the court often requires detailed status reports, such as financial accounting, at regular intervals or whenever important decisions are made, such as the sale of assets.

Are guardians compensated?
Yes, guardians are entitled to reasonable compensation for their services based on the ward’s financial ability to pay. The appointed guardian is paid directly from the ward’s estate. In most cases, the compensation must be approved by the court ahead of time, and the guardian must carefully account for all of their services, the time spent on tasks on behalf of the ward, and any associated out-of-pocket expenses.

Given the huge level of responsibility and loss of control that comes with guardianship, the best course of action would be to get proper and updated estate planning in place ahead of time to ensure that if you or anyone you love becomes incapacitated, you can stay out of the court process altogether if possible.

Contact us as your neighborhood Personal Family Lawyer® to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session—first for yourself—and then for the people you love before something happens to make it too late to plan. If it’s already too late and you’re reading this article because you need assistance petitioning a court for guardianship, contact us now to mitigate the risks, hassles, and expense.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Safeguard Your Cryptocurrency Assets With Estate Planning

One of the biggest appeals of cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, is that it is decentralized, unregulated, and anonymous. There are no financial institutions controlling it, and unless you tell someone you own digital currency, it remains a secret.

When it comes to estate planning, however, that kind of secrecy can be disastrous. In fact, without the appropriate planning protections in place, all your crypto wealth will disappear the moment you die or become incapacitated, leaving your family with absolutely no way to recover it.

Indeed, we’re facing a potential crisis whereby millions—perhaps billions—of dollars’ worth of family wealth could potentially vanish into thin air unless you take action to protect your digital assets with estate planning. Fortunately, putting the appropriate safeguards in place is a fairly simple process for a Personal Family Lawyer® experienced with cryptocurrency.

The first step in securing your crypto assets is to let your heirs know you own it. This can be done by including your digital currency in your net-worth statement listing all your assets and liabilities. Along with the amount of cryptocurrency you own, you should also include detailed instructions about where it’s located and how to find the instructions to access it. But you want those instructions to be kept in an absolutely secure location because anyone who has them can take your cryptocurrency.

Even if your heirs know you own cryptocurrency, they won’t be able to access it unless they know the encrypted passcodes needed to unlock your account. Indeed, there are numerous stories of crypto owners losing their own passcodes and then being so desperate to recover or remember them that they dug through trash cans and even hired hypnotists.

The best way to secure your passcodes is by storing them in a digital wallet. The safest option is a “cold” wallet, or one that is not connected to the internet and thus cannot be hacked. Cold wallets include USB drives as well as “paper” wallets, which are simply the passcodes printed on paper—and ideally stored in a fireproof safe.

But as with the existence of your crypto assets, the only way these wallets are of any use to your heirs is for them to know where they are and how to access them in the event of your incapacity or death. So, make sure these instructions are included in your estate plan and your Personal Family Lawyer® knows about the assets and where to locate the instructions on how to access them.

Just as it would be foolish to store your money in a secret safe and not tell anybody where it is or give them the combination to open it, it’s just as foolhardy not to take the appropriate steps to protect your cryptocurrency through proper estate planning.

Since digital currency is such a recent phenomenon, not all estate planning attorneys are familiar with it, but with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, you can rest assured we have the knowledge and experience to help you safeguard your digital wealth just as effectively as all your other assets.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

I Don’t Have Kids, So Why Do I Need Estate Planning? Part 2

Last week, we shared the first part of our series on the importance of estate planning for those without children. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here. Here in part two, we discuss the other risks involved for those who forego estate planning.

Someone will have power over your health care
Estate planning isn’t just about passing on your assets when you die. In fact, some of the most critical  parts of planning have nothing to do with your money at all, but are aimed at protecting you while you’re still very much alive.

Advance planning allows you to name the person you want to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to make decisions yourself.

For example, if you’re temporarily unconscious following a car accident and unable to give doctors permission to perform a potentially risky medical treatment, it’s not always clear who’ll be asked to make that decision for you.

If you have a romantic partner but aren’t married and haven’t granted them medical power of attorney, the court will likely have a family member, not your partner, make that decision. Depending on your family, that person may make decisions contrary to what you or your partner would want.

Indeed, if you don’t want your estranged brother to inherit your property, you probably don’t want him to have the power to make life-and-death decisions about your medical care, either. But that’s exactly what could happen if you don’t proactively plan.

Even worse, your family members who have priority to make decisions for you could keep your dearest friends away from your bedside in the event of your hospitalization or incapacity. Or family members who don’t share your values about the types of food you eat, or the types of medical care you receive, could be the one’s making decisions about how you’ll be cared for.

Even if, or maybe especially if, you don’t have kids, you need to do estate planning in order to name health care decisions-makers for yourself and provide instructions on how you want decisions made.

Someone will get power over your finances

As with health-care decisions, if you become incapacitated and haven’t legally named someone to handle your finances while you’re unable to do so, the court will pick someone for you. The way to avoid this is by naming someone you trust to hold power of attorney for you in the event of your incapacity.

Durable power of attorney is an estate planning tool that gives the person you choose immediate authority to manage your financial matters if you’re incapacitated. This agent will have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting your Social Security benefits, selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts.

Because these powers are so broad, it’s critical that you only give this power to someone you absolutely trust, and ideally, with the guidance of a lawyer who can watch out for your best interests.

The fact that durable power of attorney is granted as soon as you’re incapacitated means your agent can begin handling your finances immediately, without waiting for a judge’s decision, simply by presenting a legal document and appropriate proof of your incapacity to a financial account holder. Since courts are notoriously slow, this quick access can be immensely beneficial to ensure your bills get paid on time and you have the funds available when you need them.

Without signed durable power of attorney, your family and friends will have to go to court to get access to your finances, which not only takes time, but it could lead to mismanagement and even the loss of your assets should the court grant this authority to the wrong person.

Furthermore, the person you name doesn’t have to be a lawyer or financial professional—it can be anybody you choose, including both family and friends. The most important aspect of your choice is selecting someone who’s imminently trustworthy, since they will have nearly complete control over your estate. Besides, with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, your agent will have access to us as your trusted counsel should they need guidance or help.

Given all these potential risks, it would be foolhardy for those without children to ignore or put off these basic estate-planning strategies. Identifying the right planning tools is easy to do, and begins with a Family Wealth Planning Session, where we can consider everything you own and everyone you love, and guide you to make informed, educated, empowered choices for yourself and your loved ones.

It will likely take just a few hours of your time to be certain that both your assets, healthcare, and relationships will be managed in the most effective and affordable manner possible in the event of your death or incapacity.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.