Should Have Put A Ring On It.

Pellie was in a long term relationship with Tony that lasted over 40 years. They never married. Pellie became Tony’s caretaker when his health began to fail. Tony died in 2015. Pellie had received about $300,000 in assets from Tony up to and after his death. But Pellie believed she was entitled to much, much more. After Tony’s death, Pellie filed a claim against Tony’s trust for over $2,700,000 based upon Tony’s purported promises to take care of her. The trustee disallowed the claim. Pellie sued the trust in probate court, claiming that she and Tony had an agreement that he would take care of her after his death.

At the trial, the evidence showed that over the course of their relationship, Tony had often told here that he wanted her to take care of him and in return he would take care of her needs. Tony had verbally told Pellie that she would share in his estate. Tony’s estate plan did provide some stock and other assets to Pellie, including four bank accounts owned jointly with Pellie.

The county probate court dismissed Pellie’s lawsuit. The probate court reasoned that Tony’s promises were, in effect, a contract to make a will, and since it wasn’t in writing, the “agreement” wasn’t enforceable. Pellie appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court decision.

Under Michigan law, a contract to make a will or devise, not to revoke a will or devise, or to die without a will (intestate) may only be established by either: a) provisions in a will stating the material terms of the contract; b) an express reference in a will to such a contract with extrinsic evidence proving the terms of the contract; or c) a writing signed by the deceased establishing the contract.

A party seeking to enforce such a contract must prove an actual express agreement and not merely a statement of intentions. Since Pellie could not produce a writing evidencing Tony’s agreement to provide her financial security after his death or to compensate her for caretaking services, she could not prevail.

It is pretty clear from the evidence that Tony made promises of care and support to Pellie. We don’t know why Tony didn’t adjust his estate plan to fulfill those promises; Nor do we know to whom Tony left the bulk of his assets.

Their’s was a 40 year relationship. However, without the benefit of marriage or a some type of written agreement, Pellie didn’t have a leg to stand on. Purely moral obligations are not enforceable. Had they been married, Pellie may have had claims to Tony’s assets.

When it comes to the distribution of a deceased person’s assets, oral promises or intentions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The moral of this story is that if you are in a relationship with another — without the benefit of marriage — you need to make sure to get any promises of financial support or security from your partner in writing.

The case is Norton-Cantrell v Anthony Bzura Trust Agreement.

You can read the Court of Appeals decision here.

Saving for College Off the FAFSA Radar

Many of my clients have a desire to incorporate a college savings component into their financial plans to help with their grandchildren’s college education expenses. In many cases, a 529 college savings account has already been set up for the grandchild by the parents, and the client would like to contribute to that account. Simple yes, but there is a better way.

First, any person who wants to save for a college education should consider using a 529 college savings plan. “529″ is the section of the Internal Revenue Code that makes tax-favored college savings accounts possible. Under section 529, funds contributed to a 529 account grow on a tax-deferred basis, and may be withdrawn tax-free if the funds are used to pay for qualified education expenses in the year the expenses are incurred.  “Qualified education expenses” include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for the enrollment or attendance of the account beneficiary at an eligible educational institution (most colleges and universities, public or private).  A section 529 account may be set up by anyone who desires to save money for college expenses, including a grandparent for a grandchild.

A grandparent who sets up a 529 account for a grandchild gets the tax-advantaged savings, but there’s another benefit for the grandchild: Funds in a 529 account established by a grandparent will not affect the grandchild’s eligibility for student loans, grants, work/study programs, and even scholarships.

The vast majority of college bound students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”). The FAFSA identifies those assets that will be taken into account to determine a student’s financial aid eligibility. Financial aid eligibility is typically determined from the student and parents’ income and assets disclosed on the FAFSA (including 529 accounts established by the parent or student). Money contributed by a grandparent to a 529 account in the student’s name or in the parent’s name will be counted against the grandchild on the FAFSA.  Thus, the grandchild is penalized for the grandparent’s generosity.

However, the student’s FAFSA does not consider the assets of a grandparent. So, a grandparent may establish a 529 account in their name for a grandchild and the account is not reported on the grandchild’s FAFSA. The grandparent is able to put money away for a grandchild’s college education, without penalizing the grandchild.   In addition, the grandparent still controls the funds in the account. If the grandchild decides to not go to college or she receives substantial scholarship awards, the grandparent may substitute out one grandchild for another as the account beneficiary.

Each state must set up its own section 529 program, and nearly all the states have done so. But you can establish a 529 account in any state, not just the state of your residence. These programs are state-specific, and they have differing contribution limits, investment options, and costs. Some states (including Michigan) offer income tax benefits for their residents who use the Michigan 529 plan. So it pays to research carefully before opening a 529 account.

Are you thinking about setting aside money for your child or grandchild’s college education? Give me a call, I can help.

The Pitfalls of DIY Estate Planning, Part ?

According to an article at news.com.au, a woman from Queensland, Australia died of cancer in 2015. In an apparent effort to save money on her estate plan, she chose to use a cheap do-it-yourself will kit. The four page document had numerous hand-written attachments and contained multiple changes. It is likely to end up costing her estate tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and costs to sift through the numerous errors and ambiguities contained in the document.

“‘No one should attempt their own will. It is very dangerous,’’’ barrister Caite Brewer, who represented the named executors of the will. “‘This case is a good example of someone trying to save a few hundred dollars, doing their own will, which ends up costing their estate potentially twenty thousand dollars. They should see a solicitor who specialises in estate planning.’”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Will kits are advertised as the low cost estate planning alternative to using an attorney. The will-kit publishers advertise that you will end up with a will that is legal, but never advertise that it will be right. And that’s what you pay an attorney to do, to make sure the will is right – that it accurately expresses your intentions concerning the disposition of your estate. Yes, it costs more up front, but the extra money spent to make sure your estate plan is drafted correctly will save thousands in the long run.

Read the entire article here.

Struggling with your own estate planning? Contact me, I can help.

Three Things Your College Bound Child Needs to Leave Behind

Do you have a child getting ready to head off to college?  Whether your child goes away to school or commutes from home, don’t let them start the school year without leaving behind these three documents:

Medical Power of Attorney.  If your child is over the age of 18, you no longer have the right to speak to their physicians, or make medical decisions for them.  If your child has an accident or becomes seriously ill at school and is hospitalized, medical personnel will not discuss your child’s medical condition or treatment with you without authorization. Have your child sign a medical power of attorney. Commonly referred to as a “patient advocate designation,” your child can appoint you to speak with doctors and make medical treatment decisions for them in the event they cannot do so themselves.

HIPAA Authorization.  Have your child sign a separate HIPAA authorization.   A medical power of attorney will only help you and your child if your child is incapacitated AND in a hospital or similar facility.  There may be situations where your child is either not incapacitated or is not hospitalized, but you still need to speak to medical providers on your child’s behalf regarding treatment he or she is receiving.  A HIPAA authorization will enable you to talk to them or obtain medical records and other information regarding your child’s medical condition.  You may not be able to make treatment decisions for your child, but you can at least monitor their care.  Remember, even though you are the parent, medical providers will not speak or release information to you without your child’s prior consent, regardless of your child’s medical condition.

Durable Power of Attorney. Finally, have your child sign a durable power of attorney. Parents of college students have all heard the privacy speech from school administrators – “Due to federal privacy regulations, we cannot discuss anything regarding your student without prior written authorization” – and they mean it. In order for you to discuss a tuition or dorm bill, dispute a lab fee, or discuss any of your child’s financial or other affairs with any third party, you need written authorization. That’s where the durable power of attorney comes in to play.

Under a durable power of attorney, your child can appoint you as their agent to handle their personal and financial and other non-medical affairs, whether they are incapacitated or not. Everything from banking and bill paying to tuition or room and board issues can be handled by you as your child’s agent. If your child becomes ill or has an accident while at school, as your child’s agent you will be able to keep their affairs in order until they regain the ability to do so.

Make sure you and your child are prepared for the coming school year by making sure they leave behind a medical power of attorney, HIPAA authorization, and durable power of attorney.  Good luck!

Does your student need these documents?  Give me a call.  I can help.

The Pitfalls of Do-It-Yourself Planning

Ed owned a bank account at First State Bank. Two months before he died, he went to the bank and named one of his five children, daughter Ann, as a joint owner of the account. He specifically selected an account with rights of survivorship, which, under Michigan law, meant that the balance of funds in the account would become Ann’s property when Ed died. After Ed’s death, Ann asserted that the money was hers and did not have to be shared with her siblings. Ed’s other four children filed a petition with the local probate court claiming that Ed had added Ann’s name solely for convenience and that he actually intended for the account proceeds to be shared equally among all of his children. The probate court held a hearing and ruled that the evidence was sufficient to establish that Ed had indeed added Ann’s name to the account merely for convenience to assist with his bill paying should he die, and that he wanted the proceeds shared among all of his children after his death.  The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the probate court.

Under Michigan law, when you add a child or other person’s name to a bank account, a legal presumption arises that you intend that funds in the account belong to the survivor when you die.  Even if you intend that the account balance be shared after your death, the law presumes otherwise. This presumption can be overcome, but only if it can be proved in a court of law, by “reasonably clear and persuasive proof,” that you did not intend that the account funds vest in the survivor.  This type of proceeding can cost a fortune in legal fees. What gets less attention is the emotional cost.   Battles like this, pitting sibling against sibling, wreak havoc within a family. While Ed thought he was doing good, the actual effect of his actions was quite the opposite.

It is never a good planning move to add a child or other person’s name to a bank account or other asset without first carefully considering all of the ramifications. What Ed may have thought would be a simple way to make sure funds would be readily available to pay his bills turned out to be anything but. Ed could have given Ann his power of attorney to access the account, or created a trust to hold the account and named Ann a trustee. In either scenario Ann would have been able to pay Ed’s bills out of the account, and remainder of the account would have been shared by all of his children after his death. Sure, there may have been legal fees associated with employing those techniques. But, when one looks at the emotional and financial cost of this family’s battle, it would have been money well spent.

Many things people do in their DIY planning appear on the surface to achieve an intended goal, but end up creating serious problems that are very expensive to fix. Always, always, always, work with a competent professional. Get the peace of mind that your intentions will be fulfilled using techniques that are best suited to your individual situation. The cost to do so is pretty reasonable in the long run.

The case is: In re Estate of EDWARD SADORSKI, SR., Deceased. You can read it here.

Are you looking for solutions to your financial or estate planning problems?  Contact me, I can help.

 

A New Estate Planning Tool – The Michigan Asset Protection Trust

On February 5, 2017, Michigan became the 17th state (along with Delaware, Nevada, Ohio, and others) to permit residents to use asset protection trusts in their estate planning. Michigan’s new law, the Qualified Dispositions in Trust Act (the “Act”), allows an individual to create an irrevocable trust known as a domestic asset protection trust (DAPT) that, if set up correctly, will shield the trust’s assets from the claims of the individual’s creditors.

Until recently, asset protection trusts were available only in foreign (offshore) jurisdictions. The Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cook and Cayman Islands, Nevis, and several other jurisdictions developed highly favorable asset protection legal environments featuring sophisticated banking and trust services for clientele. Offshore asset protection statutes typically feature very short statutes of limitations periods for creditors to attack the trust, high burdens of proof for creditors, and require the creditor to challenge the trust in the jurisdiction of the trust’s location. However, with our federal government closely scrutinizing transfers of money away of the U.S., DAPTs are become more popular here in the states. In 1997, Alaska became the first state to enact a DAPT law for Alaska-based trusts.

Under the Act, a Michigan DAPT must be irrevocable, it must have a trustee located in Michigan, and, while the person who creates the trust (the “grantor”) may be a beneficiary of the trust, the grantor cannot have unrestricted access to the trust’s assets.

If a Michigan DAPT is set up correctly, a grantor’s creditors will be prohibited from reaching the trusts assets if the creditor brings a claim more than two years after the assets are placed into the trust. (A longer period applies to claims brought in bankruptcy.)  A Michigan DAPT cannot be created to defraud one’s existing creditors. Therefore, the trust must be created and funded before creditor claims arise.

The Michigan DAPT will be a useful planning tool for people with significant exposure to creditors, such as business owners and those engaged in high-risk professions, such as doctors and lawyers, where insurance may not offer adequate claim protection. A DAPT will not generally be suitable in a typical estate plan.

5 Ways to Put Your Tax Refund to Good Use This Year.

Expecting a big, fat refund from the government this year? Rather than spending it on something frivolous, put it to a good long term use. Here are 5 effective ways to use your tax refund to improve your financial health:

1. Pay off a credit card. A tax refund can jump-start a debt repayment plan. If you carry a balance on a high interest (or any) credit card, use the refund to pay it off! And then use the money freed up every month to pay off another card balance. If you have no other credit card debt, then start paying yourself by banking the monthly savings.

2. Start an emergency fund. Many people live paycheck-to-paycheck with no financial cushion in case of an emergency. If you are one of them, it’s time to create an emergency fund – your own stash – for “just in case.” Who knows when the transmission on your car will need repair, or if you’ll have a medical emergency. These things happen when we least expect, or can afford them. An emergency fund will give you peace of mind and protect you should the unexpected occur.

3. Save for retirement. It’s never too late to start saving for your retirement. Use your refund to open an IRA (traditional or Roth), or consider upping your contribution to your 401(k) or other employer provided plan. Your refund can help make up the difference in your take home pay.

4. Start a college fund. If you have a child, consider starting a college savings account through a state-sponsored 529 college education savings plan. The money grows tax free, and when your child starts college, withdrawals used for qualifying education expenses are tax free. (Bonus – Michigan allows its residents a tax deduction for contributions to accounts under its program.)

5. Make a long neglected home repair. Roof worn out, furnace on its last leg, windows leaking or drafty?   Use the refund to make necessary home repairs.  Repairs can save you money in the long run in lower energy costs, improve your home’s livability, and even boost its market value.

The End of Life Talk Is One of Estate Planning’s Necessary Evils

Estate planning is a difficult process no matter the circumstances. And end-of-life conversations with loved ones are probably the most uncomfortable aspect of that process. They require you and your loved ones to take a sober look at your life circumstances and mortality. Yet as difficult as such conversations can be, they can help avoid stress and heartache later on. Clearly conveying your wishes concerning medical treatment, your funeral, and disposition of your assets will help loved ones avoid the stress and burden of putting your affairs in order after you’ve become incapacitated or die. Topics should include who should be notified of your death, wishes concerning funeral and burial, where your important documents are kept, accessing passwords and usernames, and how you want your remaining assets distributed after your death.

For great insights and tips on end-of-life conversations, please see Barbara Bates Sedoric, The Critical Importance of End-Of-Life Conversations, Wealthcare, October 13, 2015

Don’t Overlook Beneficiary Designations In Your Estate Planning

I’ve written previously about the importance of making sure that you have beneficiaries designated for assets such as life insurance and retirement accounts. Proper beneficiary designations are a key component of estate planning. Naming beneficiaries of certain assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, is the most effective way to make sure assets pass to the intended parties upon your death in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of overlooking this important aspect of estate planning. Failing to designate beneficiaries, or not keeping beneficiary designations up to date can result in assets being subject to the expense and delay of probate.

WealthManagement.com has a short, but very good article on the importance of beneficiary designations in your estate planning. Please take a few minutes to read the article here.

Critical Estate Planning Steps for College Students

College students are getting ready to head back to school. Whether your child goes away to school or commutes from home, don’t let them start the school year without taking these critical estate planning steps:

Have your student sign a medical power of attorney. If your child has an accident or becomes seriously ill, unless your child is under age 18, medical personnel will not discuss your child’s medical condition or treatment with you without authorization. Commonly referred to as a “patient advocate designation,” your child can appoint you to speak with doctors and make medical treatment decisions for them in the event they cannot do so themselves. It’s a good idea for the school’s medical clinic to have a copy on file, too.

Have your child sign a separate HIPAA authorization. Even with a valid medical power of attorney, medical providers may refuse to release your child’s medical information or speak to you regarding their medical condition. Doctors, hospitals, and other medical facilities fear the legal repercussions of unauthorized disclosures of one’s medical information. Even though you are the parent, they will not speak or release information to you without your child’s prior consent. I have handled cases where family members were forced to petition the courts to gain access to their student’s medical information in an emergency.

Finally, have your student sign a durable power of attorney. Parents of college students have all heard the speech from school administrators – “Due to federal privacy regulations, we cannot discuss anything regarding your student without prior written authorization” – and they mean it. To discuss a tuition or dorm bill, dispute a lab fee, or discuss any of your child’s financial affairs with any third party, you need written authorization. That’s where the durable power of attorney comes in to play.

Under a durable power of attorney, you child can appoint you as their agent to handle their personal and financial affairs if they can’t themselves. Everything from banking and bill paying to tuition or room and board issues can be handled by you as your child’s agent. If your child becomes ill or has an accident while away at school, as your child’s agent you will be able to access bank accounts, make sure their bills are paid, and keep their affairs in order until they regain the ability to do so.

This is a very exciting time for college students and parents. Make sure your student is fully prepared by making sure they give you their medical power of attorney, HIPAA authorization, and durable power of attorney.