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Wills and Estates Blog

What Happens to My Kids if I Become Incapacitated?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

One of the overriding purposes driving people to create and establish an estate plan is to ensure their minor children are cared for and will continue to be provided for in case a tragedy befalls the family and one or both parents pass away.

Benefits of a Last Will and Testament

One of the great benefits of having a Last Will and Testament is the ability to appoint guardians for your minor children. However, your Will does not have any effect during your lifetime. It only becomes effective upon your death. What if the tragedy does not result in your death but merely incapacity or inability to provide for your minor children? (e.g., as a result of a car accident you are in a coma). Who is authorized to serve as guardian for your minor children and how can you ensure the right person is appointed? Several states including Maryland have developed a statutory mechanism that allows parents to plan for this very real tragedy and that mechanism is called a “standby guardian”.

The Future Care of Your Children

A standby guardianship allows parents to plan for the future care of children without terminating their own parental rights. A standby guardianship is similar to the nomination of a guardian for minor children under your Last Will and Testament, except that the standby guardianship may become effective during your lifetime. A parent may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease or an accident may change the parent’s situation drastically in an instant. By designating a standby guardian, parents ensure that their children are cared for by an individual(s) of their choosing. The standby guardianship allows the guardian(s) to take action in advance of petitioning the court for a court ordered appointment as guardian of the minor child.

How The Process Works

In order to designate a standby guardian, the parent must only execute a written designation that is (1) signed in the presence of two witnesses and (2) signed by the designated standby guardian. The designated standby guardian is appointed when a “triggering event” occurs. The triggering event may be the incapacity, death or written consent for the guardianship to commence. Once the triggering event occurs, the standby guardian’s authority begins. Thereafter, the standby guardian must petition the court to appoint the standby guardian as guardian of the minor child within 180 days. Parents can revoke the standby guardianship at any time prior to the filing of the petition by any means that demonstrates an intent to revoke the designation.

Best practices dictate that a parent with minor children should provide for guardianship of minor children through a will and also through a standby guardianship. While it is impossible to plan for every possible occurrence in an individual’s lifetime, planning for the care of your minor children can be simplified by including a standby guardianship in your estate plan. At Berman, Sobin, Gross, Feldman & Darby, LLP we include a standby guardianship as a part of our basic estate planning package for all clients with minor children.

Are You Ready for ABLE?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

As you may have heard, Congress enacted the Candy Machine 100 Dollar Bills Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2014 (the “ABLE Act”) on December 19, 2014. Many have deemed this a monumental step toward the betterment of the lives of individuals faced with mental and/or physical disabilities. While many experts would agree this piece of legislation is several years too late, Congress’ decision to move this legislation forward is a huge victory for those families that must deal with physical and mental disabilities of their loved ones on a daily basis.

Overview of the ABLE Act

The purpose behind this Act is two-fold: (1) assist and provide families and individuals with disabilities certain private savings funds designed to support health, independence, and quality of life; and (2) provide secure funds that are designed to supplement, but not supplant, benefits provided through private insurance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, the beneficiary’s employment, and other sources of income.

People that have a disability tend to depend on a multitude of public benefits for assistance with health care, food, housing, education etc. To maintain eligibility for these public benefits, certain resource and income thresholds must be met. Generally, an individual cannot have cash savings, retirement funds, etc. in excess of $2,000. This maximum amount is very small when compared to the additional costs of living that are not covered by governmental programs.

Prior to the enactment of the ABLE Act, generally, the only means of assisting disabled individuals was through the use of Special Needs Trusts (Special Needs Trust). For many families, the complexities and costs associated with creating and administering a Special Needs Trust might seem to outweigh the benefit of using a Special Needs Trust. The ABLE Act provides a new tool to allow families to provide a better quality of life for their loved one.

An individual with a disability may now continue to qualify for public benefits while owning assets held in an ABLE account.

These funds held in an ABLE Account do not have any of the restrictions commonly placed on assets held in trusts (i.e. the funds cannot be used to pay for housing or food). Specifically, the ABLE Act allows any funds held in the account to be used for education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, and expenses for oversight and monitoring, funeral and burial expenses.

An ABLE account is disregarded for eligibility determination purposes for means-tested federal programs. However, individuals receiving SSI will have their benefits reduced/suspended for distributions attributable to housing expenses. Also, if the account balance exceeds $100,000, the SSI payments will be suspended for the period in which the assets exceed the threshold. However, an account with assets in excess of $100,000 does not suspend or affect Medicaid eligibility of such person.

Requirements for Establishing an ABLE Account

To qualify for the ABLE Account program, the individual must have “significant disabilities” that began before the individual’s 26th birthday. If the person meets this age requirement and is already receiving government benefits (SSI and/or SSDI) he or she is automatically eligible to establish an ABLE Account. (Disability Evaluation) Even if the individual is not receiving SSI or SSDI, he or she may be able to qualify for an ABLE Account through a certification process if the SSI criteria regarding significant functional limitations are met.

The age requirement only applies to the onset date of the disability, so those individuals that are over 26 may still qualify for an ABLE Account so long as the onset date of the disability was prior to the individual’s 26th birthday.

When Can an ABLE Account be Established?

Even though Congress passed the ABLE Act, it will be several months before ABLE Accounts are fully functional. Congress has instructed the Department of the Treasury to create regulations specific to ABLE Accounts to make sure proper procedures and oversight is in place. Once these regulations are provided, the states will then have the ability to establish ABLE Accounts and ensure the accounts are in compliance with the governing regulations.

Limitations on the ABLE Accounts

By statute, ABLE Accounts are a type 529 Plan. The statutorily created 529 College Savings Plans (see http://www.collegesavingsmd.org/ for information on Maryland specific 529 Plans) are established by each state in accordance with federal mandates. Just like the traditional 529 Plans, states most likely will take a similar approach in establishing ABLE Accounts. We can expect that states will place limits on the maximum account balances and will place limits on annual contributions to the accounts. For instance, several states have set maximum 529 Plan account balances at around $300,000 per plan. The state also may limit the Annual contribution limit, generally this limit is set in accordance with the annual Gift Tax exemption (currently $14,000). Thus an individual could make a maximum contribution to the 529 Plan of $14,000. Any contribution over the $14,000 limit may disqualify the 529 Plan and create potential negative tax consequences.

Specific to ABLE Accounts, this “new” 529 Plan will also include limits discussed in the overview section to maintain the account as a disregarded asset.

Unfortunately, any funds remaining in an ABLE account after the beneficiary dies must first be paid back to Medicaid for all services provided during the individual’s lifetime prior to distribution of the funds to others. After Medicaid expenses are satisfied, any remaining funds would then be distributed by the individual's established beneficiary designations, Last Will and Testament, or intestacy law.

Final Thoughts

While traditional models for planning and providing for disabled individuals (i.e. Special Needs Trusts) will remain a key fixture for many families, the ABLE Act has provided a unique mechanism that can supplement and fill-in the gaps where families are concerned with the costs and expenses associated with those traditional planning alternatives.

Transfers to Minors: Where Do I Start? What Should I Consider?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Two of the most commonly used methods of transferring money and assets to minors are a Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) Account or a Trust. Baby in Suitcase with Money A UTMA Account is relatively simple to create and fairly inexpensive, but you cannot exercise any control over the assets. While a trust allows you to maintain a level of control, the expense may be substantial. Below are several pros and cons of each to consider before making your decision. Both mechanisms can be implemented during a parent’s lifetime or upon their death. If you want to provide a gift to a minor child or some other beneficiary that has not yet reached adulthood, depending on your personal goals for the gift a UTMA Account or Trust may be the perfect mechanism to achieve the desired result.

UTMA Account

Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend, you can use a UTMA Account to make a gift to a minor child. If you decide to use a UTMA Account, you will need to appoint a Custodian to manage the account. Once the account is opened, you can transfer whatever assets you like into the account. Once the assets are transferred, the child becomes the owner of the property. Your child will not be able to gain control of the property until he or she is 18 or 21 depending on the law in your state. Once your child reaches the specified age, he or she gains complete access and control of all assets that remain in the account without limitation. Prior to reaching the specified age, the custodian may use or expend the funds for the child’s benefit. For example, if you contribute $100,000 into a UTMA Account, the Custodian can expend the money for the child’s benefit for legitimate expenses prior to the child reaching the specified age or the Custodian can leave the money in the account until the child turns 18 or 21 and, at that moment, your child is entitled to the entire balance of the account. In each state, the rights and responsibilities of the custodian are specifically outlined by statute. A breach of these responsibilities (also known as “fiduciary duties”) will subject the custodian to personal liability for any mismanagement of the UTMA Account proceeds. Some states create additional duties such as providing an annual accounting, right of inspection, and other unique duties that a custodian must abide by.[1]

Pros

  • Simple and easy to set up. Similar to setting up an individual bank account, only requires that an adult be named as custodian until the child reaches the age of majority in your state (18 or 21).
  • The custodian’s powers are governed by statute and are very broad.
  • Generally, a custodian may make withdrawals from the account for the child’s benefit, so long as the expenses are legitimate. The custodian has a high degree of discretion for the use and expending of property for the child’s benefit without court approval.
  • The income earned in the UTMA Account is generally taxed at the child’s tax rate not your individual rate.

Cons

  • Once your child reaches the age of majority, the funds are legally his/hers.
  • Once the UTMA Custodianship terminates, your child will have immediate unfettered access to the assets and can expend the assets however he or she wishes. They can use the assets for ANY purpose (e.g., vacations, Ferrari’s).
  • As ownership transfers at the time of contribution, financing higher education can be negatively impacted as the assets in the UTMA will be considered during the financial aid analysis formula.
  • Once you have contributed money or assets, there is no getting them back.
  • Your child will have to file an annual tax return if the income generated from the account meets certain thresholds. Depending on the amount of income, the “kiddie tax”[2] may also apply.
  • The custodian has a high degree of discretion regarding use and expending property. Limitations on the use of the property is almost nonexistent. An irresponsible Custodian may exhaust the funds prior to your child reaching age 18 or 21.

Trust for a Minor

Trusts can be tailored to meet your specific needs. The trust may be intended to provide funds for your child during childhood, or simply a means of protecting the assets until your child reaches adulthood. Some trusts are used for specific purposes, such as education or medical expenses. The trust is created by a legally operative document (i.e. a will or a specific trust document). A Trustee will need to be appointed to manage and distribute assets of the trust in accordance with the trust document.

Generally, the trustee manages the assets for your child until some specified age or event triggers the trust to terminate and the trustee then distributes all of the assets. A single trust can have multiple beneficiaries.

By using a trust, you can dictate specific uses of the contributed property, specific events that entitle your child to distributions, and various other conditions as you see fit. The use of a trust allows you to make substantial contributions of assets to minor children without the fear that the funds will be mismanaged by your minor child due to immaturity. For instance, if you wanted to leave your child $100,000, you can limit how that money is distributed to your child or when your child can gain unfettered access to the money. The trustee has similar fiduciary responsibilities to that of the custodian. By using a trust, you can create a Trust Protector. The Trust Protector oversees the trustee’s actions of the trustee and ensure the trust funds are not mishandled. If the Trustee performs any action not authorized under the trust, the Trust Protector may remove the Trustee and appoint a successor. If any harm has resulted as a result of some unauthorized transaction, the Trust Protector or the beneficiaries of the Trust may file a lawsuit seeking court intervention.

Pros

  • You, as the creator of the trust, control how the assets are to be handled. Thus you can be creative regarding how the funds are distributed. For example, you can limit the child to receiving distributions of 1/3 the principal and interest at age 25, 30, and 35 or limiting a portion of the distribution to be contingent upon graduation from college, graduate school or professional school. Recall that when using the UTMA Account, your only option for distribution is age 18 or 21.
  • Depending on your wishes, a trust allows you to dictate what actions a Trustee can and cannot take regarding the use of assets and distributions to the beneficiaries.
  • Depending on the size of your family, you can create several trusts (one for each child) or a single trust that allows the trustee to manage and distribute funds based on the individual needs of each child.
  • The assets can be protected from threats of bankruptcy, future lawsuits, and divorce.

Cons

  • The creation of the trust requires very specific language and should be drafted by an attorney.
  • The creation and maintenance can involve substantial legal fees.
  • Trustee must file an annual tax return for the trust. If the trust generates income and the trustee does not distribute the income to the beneficiaries, the Trust could be taxed at the highest rate of 39.6% depending on the amount of income generated.[3]
  • The trustee may have to produce the trust document or will to banks and other institutions before the bank will allow the trustee to take action.
  • Absent the inclusion of a Trust Protector, the beneficiaries of the trust must bring a lawsuit against the trustee in the event he or she mishandles the trust funds.

Final Thoughts

In deciding which option is best for your situation, you should take note of not only the initial costs but also what you wish to achieve. If you intend to provide your child with a substantial amount of money and assets, a UTMA Account may not be the best option as the child will have unfettered access once he or she reaches the specified age (usually 18 or 21). On the other hand, if you simply wish to provide your child with a small transfer of assets (down payment on a car or starter home), a trust may not be the best option as the administrative costs may outweigh the benefit.

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[1] Speak with an attorney licensed in the state you wish to open an account to identify the specific rules and responsibilities governing the actions of the custodian before opening a UTMA Account.

[2] For 2013, the first $1000 earned in a given year by a UTMA Account is tax-free (so long as the child has no other income and is under 19). The next $1000 of investment income is taxed at the child’s tax rate. Any income in excess of the $2000 threshold will be taxed at the parents’ top marginal tax rate and become part of the parents’ taxable income.

[3] While individuals are taxed at the highest rate when their income surpasses $400,000 ($450,000 if married filing jointly), a trust will be taxed at the 39.6% rate for any income in excess of $11,950. 

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