You might think that leaving your property to your heirs would be easy. You make a will or a trust, you do a transfer-on-death deed for your real estate, you put your kids on your bank account, you designate beneficiaries for your life insurance and retirement accounts, and you’re done.
If only things were that simple. The result you wanted can be seriously foiled, if all the above elements are not carefully coordinated.
After you consider the following, we hope you’ll agree that it’s best to consult a qualified attorney. That’s the person you need to help you construct an estate plan that will do what you want it to do.
A pitfall: Conflict between deeds and wills or trusts
If your will or trust conflicts with a deed for real property, the law will resolve the conflict for you by following the deed, not the will or trust. This can produce unintended results.
Suppose Mary wanted to divide her property equally between her two children, John and Jane. She recorded a beneficiary deed for John so he could inherit the house. She wrote a will leaving money to her daughter Jane that was roughly the same value as the house.
Subsequently, however, Mary forgot about John’s deed. She made another will that split everything equally between John and Jane.
On Mary’s death, John ended up getting significantly more than Jane. The portion of the second will including the house would be invalidated because the earlier deed would supplant the will. So John got the house through the deed, plus half the money through the will. Jane got half the money only. That was not what Mary intended and the unfairness damaged John’s and Jane’s relationship.
A similar pitfall: Conflict between beneficiary designations and wills or trusts
Financial accounts can transfer automatically to people of your choice, avoiding probate, if you designate beneficiaries by means of “transfer on death” (TOD) through your broker. But you must not depend on your will to change TOD designations. The beneficiary designations establish a contract between the holder of the account and you. When you pass, the holder is legally obligated to transfer your account to the beneficiaries you designate, regardless of what your will says. The designations, like deeds, supplant wills.
So if you have named your spouse as a beneficiary of, say, a retirement account, and then you get divorced and forget to change the beneficiary designation, your ex-spouse – and neither your new spouse nor your children nor anybody else – will receive the account proceeds when you die, regardless what your will says.
Underage beneficiaries and guardianship proceedings
Suppose your financial advisor calls to alert you that you have not designated beneficiaries on your accounts and that if you don’t do so, your estate will have to go through probate when you pass. By making TOD designations, your beneficiary would simply present a death certificate and the assets would transfer to him or her without the need to go to court. That sounds good. So you follow your advisor’s suggestion and designate your beneficiaries.
In the meantime, your lawyer drafts a good will for you. This will, as good wills should, contain a subtrust providing for underage beneficiaries. Your lawyer, echoing your financial advisor, explains that the subtrust is intended to avoid the necessity of court proceedings.
Your efforts to avoid court will be defeated, however, if you choose an underage beneficiary to receive your financial account through TOD. Guardianship proceedings would still be necessary to administer the money until the beneficiary came of age.
It would have been better to route the gift to the underage beneficiary through a will or trust and not through TOD designation. If wills or trusts are properly drafted, they contain provisions to administer the underage beneficiary’s inheritance privately and thereby avoid the court guardianship proceedings.
Another pitfall: Disabled beneficiaries and government benefits
The pitfall here is similar to the one above. If your beneficiary is disabled and gets a TOD (or any other kind of) inheritance, the inherited money could jeopardize the beneficiary’s entitlement to government benefits. Most benefits programs are “means-tested.” To be eligible, recipients must own practically nothing. If your beneficiary were suddenly to inherit, he or she would lose benefits and end up having to pay for care until the inheritance was spent. That could involve a lot of money!
Rather, like for underage beneficiaries, the disabled beneficiary’s inheritance should be routed through a will or “supplemental needs trust” (SNT) that imposes restrictions on spending. With those restrictions in place, the benefits would keep coming, and the inheritance assets could be used to pay for “extras” that benefits don’t cover. These extras might include payment of real estate taxes, upkeep of a residence, or vacations, or a flat-screen television. The inherited money would be managed by a trusted person and the disabled beneficiary would still continue to receive the crucially important benefits.
Bank accounts and disabled or underage beneficiaries
The pitfall is the same as above. If you have designated underage or disabled beneficiaries by making your accounts “payable on death” (POD), court proceedings will be necessary in the case of the underage beneficiary, or the inheritance could jeopardize or eliminate the disabled beneficiary’s government benefits.
The problem is likewise similar here. If your beneficiary has a gambling habit or drug addiction, or if he or she needs bankruptcy protection from creditors, and if he or she inherits without trust protections, the inheritance could be lost to the beneficiary’s detriment.
Joint tenancy of real property
It may be tempting to avoid probate by putting real estate in your beneficiaries’ names as joint tenants. But if multiple people own real estate jointly, all must agree on what is to be done with the land and all should contribute equally to property maintenance expenses. This can create disputes. A better solution might be to subject the property to probate, to dispose of it in orderly court proceedings.
Joint bank accounts
The intent to avoid probate here is similar to a joint tenancy of land, but putting your bank account in your and your children’s names exposes the funds to risk that should be avoided. Once a person is named as a co-owner of a bank account, that person has immediate and unfettered access to the funds. The funds are thus exposed to misappropriation by the joint-tenant child, or they can go instead to the child’s creditors in bankruptcy, or to ex-spouses in divorce proceedings.
It would be better to create a power of attorney that allows a trusted agent access to bank-account funds for your benefit while you are alive. Then, for when you pass, you could name beneficiaries via a POD designation with the bank – but remember the warnings above regarding underage or disabled or spendthrift beneficiaries. Those beneficiaries’ access to funds should be protected by a trust.
A lot of moving parts
Each of the estate-planning strategies above could work well in and of themselves, but, taken together, may have an adverse impact. Crafting a plan that combines and coordinates the various strategies requires expertise and care. That care is worth taking, to safeguard the wealth you have built up over the years. Don’t risk a result you don’t want. Call on us to design a plan that harmonizes all the moving parts, so the gears will work together and you will leave the legacy you intended. If you need assistance or would like to talk about your specific situation, contact our Cincinnati office at (513) 815-7006.
A trust is a great mechanism for handling estate business and it can be beneficial to anyone with any number of assets. You want to keep your affairs private and stay out of probate court? Maybe you have stepchildren? You want to leave money to your favorite charities? Or you own a small business and you’re concerned about liability. Perhaps you have a child with special needs. You have an elderly parent who might need government benefits. And so on. There are lots of situations where a trust is just the thing.
In an ideal world, a trust runs like a well-oiled machine. The creator of the trust is even-handed and fair in where he wants his money to go. The recipients of trust funds – the beneficiaries – want the best for all, including themselves. The trustee – the person entrusted with managing the money in the trust – is conscientious and responsible. She invests wisely. She provides beneficiaries with regular accountings of how those investments are doing. She pays beneficiaries earned interest right on time. When the trust has served its purpose, she pays out assets and winds up the estate.
That’s the ideal world. Not everybody lives there, unfortunately. Individual trustees can be inexperienced, overworked, overwhelmed, intentionally uncooperative, or even abusive or dishonest. Beneficiaries can become anxious and suspicious, with or without reason. And grit gets in the gears.
If you are a beneficiary who’s concerned that the trustee is not living up to her duties, we suggest a stepped approach. Start by being nice and assuming the best intentions. Specifically, identify what’s troubling you. Try to sit down with the trustee to discuss your concerns. Disagreements may turn out to be misunderstandings that can be worked out amicably.
If you don’t have a copy of the trust document, ask for it. Don’t believe what you’re told about what the trust says. You as beneficiary have the right to read the document and to make sure that what you think you’re entitled to is in fact what you are entitled to.
Beneficiaries have the right to know where trust funds have been placed, how much income the funds have earned, and how much the trustee has spent on expenses and commissions. If your trustee has not provided you with an accounting, ask politely in writing. Request that the trustee responds within a specified reasonable time. If your request is simple – for example, you’re only asking for a copy of the trust document – that time could be short. If you want an accounting, allow the trustee more time to calculate expenses and reconcile accounts.
If all goes well, the situation may be resolved at that point.
If not, though, act immediately. Don’t merely hope things will take care of themselves. Your time to go to court is limited and you may be penalized for not acting promptly. Call an experienced trust-and-estate lawyer. General practitioners may be good negotiators, but they are probably unfamiliar with current trust-and-estate law. You need an attorney who has extensive experience with trustees or executors who have mishandled an estate or otherwise breached their duties. And remember – you need your own attorney, not the attorney who drafted the trust.
You and your attorney can then choose the optimal way to reach your goals. Maybe simply a letter from the attorney to the trustee will do the job. If it doesn’t, though, it may be time to go to court. Your attorney will advise you.
But what if you think the trustee is actually stealing? Misappropriating your inheritance? Isn’t that a crime? A police matter?
Yes, but. The police won’t pursue a case unless the trustee has actually embezzled or absconded. Otherwise, if your trustee has invested funds recklessly, or lost money, or won’t communicate with you, those are civil disputes that are resolved in probate court, not criminal court. The probate judge can force uncooperative trustees to act, or, if necessary, may remove the trustee altogether if she is unfit or the situation otherwise warrants.
In sum, an individual serving as trustee is responsible to communicate honestly and openly with beneficiaries, gather and invest property of the estate, and to account for the property that passes through. That can be a big job, so allow your trustee some latitude if possible. But life being what it is, drama and chaos can break out, especially if familial relationships aren’t what they could be wished for.
If you find yourself in that situation, we would be happy to talk with you about how we could help provide support and expertise, to move toward a happier solution. If you need assistance or would like to talk about your specific situation, contact our Cincinnati office at (513) 815-7006.
Parents need to instill family values at an early age to ensure the adoption of these family values. Undoubtedly the best time to teach and empower your children as eventual inheritors of your family legacy is during childhood, then continuing throughout adulthood. Waiting until your later stages in life to discuss family values as a guide to handling inherited worth is often ill-received as grown adult children prefer not to feel parented anymore, particularly when they are raising children of their own.
There is value in the spiritual, intellectual, and human capital of rising generations, and it is incumbent upon older generations to embrace this notion and work with their heirs rather than dictating to them their ideas about how to facilitate better outcomes. While the directions taken by newer generations will likely differ and can sometimes be downright frightening than that of their elders, there can still be a deep sense of service and responsibility to family values and stewardship of inherited wealth. Allow your children to exert their influence over the family enterprise early on in life and make adjustments that create synergy, connection, and like-mindedness.
If this description of a somewhat ideal family system does not resemble yours, take heart. Most families do not conform to perfect standards of interaction. The more affluent a family is, the higher the failure rate to disperse assets without severe fallout. The Williams Group conducted a 20-year study and determined there is a 70 percent failure rate that includes rapid asset depletion and disintegration of family relationships during and after inheritance. Establishing inheritable trusts can provide real benefits. Benefits include avoiding probate, reducing time to handle estate matters, privacy protection, the elimination or reduction of the estate tax, and can be effective pre-nuptial planning. A parent who wants to control outcomes should focus on these benefits of the trust instead of trying to legislate their future adult children’s behavior.
It is imperative not to allow your values and legacy to become weaponized within the family system. A sure-fire way to inspire conflict is via “dead hand control,” meaning trying to control lives from the grave. Most often, if you put excessive trust restraints on adult children, they will act accordingly to your perception that they are not adult enough to handle wealth. Instead, consider enrolling them in a few classes about managing wealth. Spark an interest in them to learn how you have created wealth, the mechanisms you used, and what their future endeavors may look like long after you are gone. Formally educate your children about finances, the earlier the better, and instead of talking about who gets what the conversation can shift to the mechanics of managing wealth. This tactic resets the context of the issue and aligns purpose and intended long-term outcomes.
Estate planners try to encourage trust choices that lead to flexibility. If a beneficiary is genuinely incapable of making the right decisions, a trustee can be appointed to make distributions in the beneficiary’s best interest. This trustee discretionary power of money management can help a well-funded trust survive for generations.
You can also write a letter of wishes or provide a statement of intent to your children. Though these are not legally binding, it gives you a platform to remind them of family values and your desire for these values to be maintained for future family generations. This type of letter is an opportunity for you to convey your vision for how your wealth can bring growth and a chance for fulfillment to beneficiaries.
Prosperity should positively shape lives. Family trust beneficiaries hopefully already have a self-driven life that includes purpose, responsible behavior, and a basic understanding of personal finance. If you worry your children may squander inheritable assets, create the opportunity for them to succeed through classes that teach them about managing legacy family values and wealth. Address your concerns legally and directly through a detailed trust that can help but not overly constrain them to achieve what you envision they can become. Start an honest conversation early on, but remember it is never too late to make good choices and create positive family value influences for the coming generations. A well-known Ann Landers quote sums it up neatly, “In the final analysis it is not what you do for your children but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings” – a worthy goal of any family value system.
If you are interested in establishing a trust to pass wealth on to your children, we can help. We can also guide families on how to pass on family values in a meaningful way. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you. If you need assistance or would like to talk about your specific situation, contact our Cincinnati office at (513) 815-7006.