There Are Many Reasons You Might Want an Estate Plan
Separating Hype from Reality
By Ann I Weber, Esq.
Recent headlines read: “Estate Taxes Repealed for All But Mega Estates!” “Get Your Hot Dogs Here with a Complimentary Will and Trust!” and “Never Need Legal Work Again!”
Is all this true, hype, or misinformation?
All three, as it turns out. Yes, only ginormous estates, i.e., those in excess of $11,200,000 for an individual, will be subject to federal estate taxes. Yes, wills and trusts may become less expensive without technical drafting to minimize federal estate taxes. Hype because many people have estates that are subject to state estate taxes. In Massachusetts, any estate over $1 million is taxed from dollar one — and you can’t dodge that bullet by making deathbed gifts.
Hype also because many non-tax situations make an estate plan desirable or even crucial. Misinformation because, as noted below, changes and complications in families, businesses, and relationships are inevitable, and sometimes an estate plan can help your family to navigate through what might otherwise be turbulent times.
A estate plan is important because you still need to say where you want your property to go at your death. Without a will, absent a named beneficiary, your property will go where the Commonwealth says it will go. In many cases, that’s not what you may want. For example:
• You may want your surviving spouse to receive all of your assets. But unless you say so in a will, your estate will be divided among your spouse and your children based on formulas tied to whether some or all children are from your prior marriages, if any, and from the prior marriages, if any, of your current spouse.
• You may have individuals you wish to include who are not your ‘heirs at law.’ Under Massachusetts intestacy statutes, a parent, cousin, nephew, friend, or charity, among others, might not benefit from your estate unless specifically named.
• You may have minor children and want to delay their direct access to your estate. Many people want to defer the benefits that their minor children receive from their estate until the children reach specified ages. The Commonwealth provides only for outright distribution to estate beneficiaries age 18 or older. If such beneficiaries are under the age of 18, the court will appoint a guardian to manage these funds for the child. A will or a revocable living trust can create a trust providing for delayed distributions to the child while still allowing the trustee to use trust assets for the child’s benefit until that time.
• You may have children from a previous marriage. The Commonwealth provides formula benefits to current spouse and children whether from the current or prior marriages, and may not meet the particular needs of your family. A will or trust can tailor distributions to your children and spouse or provide that property allocated to your spouse pass to your children at such spouse’s death.
• You may have a parent you want to benefit. The intestate laws in Massachusetts do not provide benefits for a parent if a spouse or children survive you. A will or trust could include such provisions. If there is a possibility that a parent might require nursing-home care, a specially drafted trust can shelter trust assets from MassHealth claims. At the parent’s death, trust assets will pass according to your directions.
• You may have a special-needs beneficiary. If assets from your estate are distributed outright to a person who otherwise qualifies for state or federal benefits such as MassHealth, Supplemental Security Income, or VA benefits, for example, the receipt of these assets may cause an interruption in or cessation of benefits. Instead, you may want to consider directing these benefits to a special-needs trust which can hold such benefits without adversely impacting needs-based benefits.
• You may want to make gifts to charity. Massachusetts laws of intestacy do not provide for gifts to charities. Such gifts can be made via a will or trust or by naming a charity as a beneficiary of your bank, investment, or retirement account. If a charity is named as a beneficiary of your retirement fund, the gift will pass free of income taxes that would be payable by individual beneficiaries and will also pass free of estate taxes.
• You may want to consider a durable power of attorney to appoint someone to handle your financial affairs in the event of your disability. Durable powers of attorney can take effect immediately or upon your disability and, in the event of your disability, can avoid the need for a court-appointed guardian with all the attendant expense, publicity, and delays — and the choice of who handles your affairs is made by you rather than a judge.
• You may want to specify the type of medical treatment you do or do not want. The Commonwealth provides a standard-form healthcare proxy, available online, that can address these concerns about treatment and end-of-life care. If you have strong opinions regarding the administration (or lack thereof) of particular forms of treatment should you be terminally ill or injured, you may want to consider executing a living will.
Attorney Ann I. Weber is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C., and concentrates her practice in the areas of estate-tax planning, estate administration, probate, and elder law. She has a particular interest in creative estate planning for authors, artists, farmers, and landowners, and she is a frequent author and speaker on issues regarding estate planning; (413) 737-1131; www.ssfpc.com