6 Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability of Being a Trustee (Part 2) by Rob Cohen

Here are the additional tips continued from “BEING A TRUSTEE IS A THANKLESS JOB: Six Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability (Part 1)” that might help make your trustee-ship progress more smoothly.

4) Examine the inventory. It is not uncommon for people to set up trusts and then do nothing, assuming that since the documents have been signed the trust is effective. This is not accurate; not only must the trust document be executed, but then the assets must be transferred into the trust, (you must “fund the trust”). Failure to fund the trust is especially common with do-it-yourself websites and computer programs; people mistakenly believe that just having a trust is sufficient. Before a trustee can administer the trust, he or she needs to have assets to administer. When examining the assets, here are some action items to consider.

• If the decedent had a safe deposit box, take possession of it and its contents.
• Consult with banking institutions in the area to find all accounts of the deceased.
• Check for cash and other valuables that may be hidden around the home.
• Locate and inventory all real estate deeds, mortgages, leases, and tax information.
• Provide immediate management for rental properties.
• Locate all household and personal effects and other personal property in order to inventory and protect them.
• Collect all life insurance proceeds payable to the estate.
• Find and safeguard all business interests, valuables, personal property, and important papers.

Ultimately, do your best to make sure that the trust’s assets are actually in the trust. If you identify assets that were not transferred to the trust, ascertain whether they should have been.

5) Take emotion out of the equation.In many situations you can be asked to be a trustee for clients, parents, brothers, sisters, and other family members or friends. When the emotional ties are close, you cannot play favorites. As a trustee you have a huge responsibility and significant exposure. Your actions will be scrutinized and challenged by those beneficiaries who feel they were treated unfairly. Your best bet to avoid personal liability is to be unbiased when dealing with trust matters. If you are not sure about your actions and whether they reflect any bias, ask your attorney.

6) Obtain adequate liability and fidelity insurance. No one is immune to lawsuits, and that includes you in your role as a trustee. To protect yourself, obtain errors and omissions insurance, which protects against claims by beneficiaries that you failed to fulfill your fiduciary duty in the management and administration of the trust. Without the protection of errors and omissions insurance, your personal assets could be “exposed” if a disgruntled beneficiary sues you. It is better to have insurance to protect you and your assets.

Being a trustee is not always an appreciated job, but it certainly is a job with tremendous responsibility. Just remember to be mindful of your duties and ask for advice when in doubt. Trusts contain valuable assets, and as dysfunctional families do not get better when someone passes away, trustees easily can become embroiled in nasty litigation. You may not be able to avoid it, but at least you’ll be able to protect yourself.

For more information on trusts, wills, probate, and the role of trustees, contact Rob Cohen at (818) 501-5800 or emal him at rcohen@ahslawyers.com.

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6 Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability of Being a Trustee (Part 1) by Rob Cohen

Trusts are popular estate planning tools to ensure that families and assets are taken care of when someone passes away. Whether it’s providing for children, endowing charities, or managing real estate, those who create trusts have specific wishes that they expect to be followed, and they expect the trustee to carry out their plans.

But, being a trustee can be a thankless job, not to mention one that can thrust a person with good intentions into the cross hairs of litigation. Courts are filling to over-capacity with cases against trustees, and the matters can get quite complex.

If you are asked to be a trustee, first understand that someone held you in very high esteem and had confidence that you could oversee his or her legacy and assets. Second, be sure you know what being a trustee entails. It can get very complex, very fast.

With this in mind, here are a few tips that might help make your trustee-ship progress more smoothly.

1) Read the trust. Seems pretty basic, but you might be surprised at the level of detail and complexity contained within a trust. The trustee is obligated to administer the trust strictly by its terms. Not all trusts are the same; if possible, read the document with an attorney familiar with trust administration.

2) Keep track of your time. Some trusts are specific as to how much the trustee is to be paid (e.g., a fixed fee or percentage of the value of the assets). But some trusts, especially those drafted several years ago, may permit the trustee to receive “reasonable” compensation. What is reasonable? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. To avoid possible confusion or challenges, track your hours spent acting as trustee. If there is a dispute as to the trustee’s compensation, at least you’ll be able to demonstrate the actual time spent on trust matters.

3) Provide annual accountings. Every year, be sure to provide the beneficiaries with clear written accountings, which explain the income and expenses of the trust. Why is this important? First, it is required by statute. Second, once the accounting is served on the beneficiaries, the statute of limitations begins to run on claims challenging the accounting. If you don’t serve the accounting, the statute of limitations to file a challenge doesn’t start and you can be on the hook for a long time.

To continue reading: BEING A TRUSTEE IS A THANKLESS JOB: Six Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability (Part 2)

For more information speak with our Trust Attorney in Los Angeles today.

Understanding Estate Taxes: Net Value, Reduction/Elimination and Exemptions

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How is the net value of my estate determined?

To determine the current net value, add your assets, then subtract your debts. Include your home, business interests, bank accounts, investments, personal property, IRAs, retirement plans and death benefits from your life insurance.

How can I reduce or eliminate my estate taxes?

In the simplest terms, there are three ways:

1. If you are married, use both estate tax exemptions

2. Remove assets from your estate before you die

3. Buy life insurance to replace assets given to charity and/or pay any remaining estate taxes

Using Both Exemptions

If your spouse is a U.S. citizen, you can leave him or her an unlimited amount when you die with no estate tax. But this can be a tax trap, because it wastes an exemption.

Let’s say, for example, that Bob and Sue together have a net estate of $4 million and they both die in 2006. Bob dies first. He leaves everything to Sue, so no estate taxes are due then. When Sue dies, her estate of $4 million uses her $2 million exemption. The tax bill on the remaining $2 million is $920,000! ($900,000 in 2007 and 2008.)

But if, instead, Bob and Sue plan ahead, they can use both their exemptions and pay no estate taxes. A tax planning provision in their living trust splits their $4 million estate into two trusts of $2 million each. When Bob dies, his trust uses his $2 million exemption. When Sue dies, her trust uses her $2 million exemption. This reduces their taxable estate to $0, so the full $4 million can go to their loved ones.

This planning can also be done in a will, but you would not avoid probate or enjoy the other benefits of a living trust.  Speak with an experienced Estate Planning Attorney in Los Angeles today to plan for your estate taxes.

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Summary of Living Trust Benefits

The Main Benefits of a Living Trust:

• Avoids probate at death, including multiple probates if you own property in other states

• Prevents court control of assets at incapacity

• Brings all your assets together under one plan

• Provides maximum privacy

• Quicker distribution of assets to beneficiaries

• Assets can remain in trust until you want beneficiaries to inherit

• Can reduce or eliminate estate taxes

• Inexpensive, easy to set up and maintain

• Can be changed or cancelled at any time

• Difficult to contest

• Prevents court control of minors’ inheritances

• Can protect dependents with special needs

• Prevents unintentional disinheriting and other problems of joint ownership

• Professional management with corporate trustee

• Peace of mind

For additional questions about living trust, please review our blog series entitled “Understanding Living Trusts: How you can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ” or speak with our Living Trust Attorney in Los Angeles.

Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 4)

This is part 4 of the blog series entitled “Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ” discussing frequently asked questions about living trusts, probate, taxes and more.

What does a successor trustee do?

If you become incapacitated, your successor trustee looks after your care and manages your financial affairs for as long as needed, using your assets to pay your expenses. If you recover, you automatically resume control. When you die, your successor trustee pays your debts and distributes your assets. All this is done quickly and privately, according to instructions in your trust, without court interference.

Who can be successor trustees?

Successor trustees can be individuals (adult children, other relatives, or trusted friends) and/or a corporate trustee. If you choose an individual, you should name more than one in case your first choice is unable to act.

Does my trust end when I die?

Unlike a will, a trust doesn’t have to die with you. Assets can stay in your trust, managed by the person or corporate trustee you selected, until your beneficiaries reach the age(s) you want them to inherit. Your trust can continue longer to provide for a loved one with special needs, or to protect the assets from beneficiaries’ creditors, ex-spouses and future death taxes.

How can a living trust save on estate taxes?

If you die in 2006 and the net value of your estate (assets minus debts) is more than $2 million, federal estate taxes must be paid on the excess at a rate of 46%. If you are married, your living trust can include a provision that will let you and your spouse leave up to $4 million estate tax-free to your loved ones, saving up to $920,000 in taxes.

Doesn’t a trust in a will do the same thing?

Not quite. A will can contain wording to create a testamentary trust to save estate taxes, care for minors, etc. But, because it’s part of your will, this trust cannot go into effect until after you die and the will is probated. So it does not avoid probate and provides no protection at incapacity.

Is a living trust expensive?

Not when compared to all the costs of court interference at incapacity and death. How much you pay will depend on how complicated your plan is.

How long does it take to get a living trust?

It should only take a few weeks to prepare the legal documents after you make the basic decisions.

Should I have an attorney do my trust?

Yes, but you need the right attorney. A local attorney who has considerable experience in living trusts will be able to give you valuable guidance and peace of mind that your trust is prepared properly. In some states, qualified paralegals can now also prepare trust documents; however, they cannot give you legal advice.

If I have a living trust, do I still need a will?

Yes, you need a “pour-over” will that acts as a safety net if you forget to transfer an asset to your trust. When you die, the will “catches” the forgotten asset and sends it into your trust. The asset may have to go through probate first, but it can then be distributed as part of your living trust plan.

Is a “living will” the same as a living trust?

No. A living trust is for financial affairs. A living will is for medical affairs; it lets others know how you feel about life support in terminal situations.

Are living trusts new?

No, they’ve been used successfully for hundreds of years.

Who should have a living trust?

Age, marital status and wealth don’t really matter. If you own titled assets and want your loved ones (spouse, children or parents) to avoid court interference at your death or incapacity, consider a living trust. You may also want to encourage other family members to have one so you won’t have to deal with the courts at their incapacity or death.

For additional questions about trust law, speak with our experienced Living Trust Lawyer in Los Angeles today.

Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 3)

This is part 3 of the blog series entitled “Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ” discussing frequently asked questions about living trusts, probate, taxes and more.

Do I lose control of the assets in my trust?
Absolutely not. You keep full control. As trustee of your trust, you can do anything you could do before — buy/sell assets, change or even cancel your trust (that’s why it’s called a revocable living trust). You even file the same tax returns. Nothing changes but the names on the titles.
Is it hard to transfer assets into my trust?
No, and your attorney, trust officer, financial adviser and insurance agent can help. You need to change titles on real estate (in- and out-of-state) and other titled assets (stocks, CDs, bank accounts, other investments, insurance, etc.). Most living trusts also include jewelry, clothes, art, furniture, and other assets that do not have titles.

Also, beneficiary designations on some assets (like insurance) should be changed to your trust so the court can’t control them if a beneficiary is incapacitated or no longer living when you die. (IRA, 401(k), etc. can be exceptions.)
Doesn’t this take a lot of time?
It will take some time — but you can do it now, or you can pay the courts and attorneys to do it for you later. One of the benefits of a living trust is that all your assets are brought together under one plan. Don’t delay “funding” your trust. It can only protect assets that have been transferred into it.
Should I consider a corporate trustee?
You may decide to be the trustee of your trust. However, some people select a corporate trustee (bank or trust company) to act as trustee or co-trustee now, especially if they don’t have the time, ability or desire to manage their trusts, or if one or both spouses are ill. Corporate trustees are experienced investment managers, they are objective and reliable, and their fees are usually very reasonable.
If something happens to me, who has control?
If you and your spouse are co-trustees, either can act and have instant control if one becomes incapacitated or dies. If something happens to both of you, or if you are the only trustee, the successor trustee you personally selected will step in. If a corporate trustee is already your trustee or co-trustee, they will continue to manage your trust for you.

For additional questions about trust law, speak with our experienced Trust Attorney in Los Angeles today.

Continue to: Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 4)

Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 2)

This is part 2 of the blog series entitled “Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ” discussing frequently asked questions about living trusts, probate, taxes and more.

Doesn’t joint ownership avoid probate?
Not really. Using joint ownership usually just postpones probate. With most jointly owned assets, when one owner dies, full ownership does transfer to the surviving owner without probate. But if that owner dies without adding a new joint owner, or if both owners die at the same time, the asset must be probated before it can go to the heirs.

Watch out for other problems. When you add a co-owner, you lose control. Your chances of being named in a lawsuit and of losing the asset to a creditor are increased. There could be gift and/or income tax problems. And since a will does not control most jointly owned assets, you could disinherit your family.

With some assets, especially real estate, all owners must sign to sell or refinance. So if a co-owner becomes incapacitated, you could find yourself with a new “co-owner” — the court–even if the incapacitated owner is your spouse.

Why would the court get involved at incapacity?
If you can’t conduct business due to mental or physical incapacity (Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart attack, etc.), only a court appointee can sign for you – even if you have a will. (Remember, a will only goes into effect after you die.)

Once the court gets involved, it usually stays involved until you recover or die. The court, not your family, controls how your assets are used to care for you. This public process can be expensive, embarrassing, time consuming and difficult to end if you recover. And it does not replace probate at death – your family could have to go through the court system twice!

Does a durable power of attorney prevent the court’s involvement at incapacity?
A durable power of attorney lets you name someone to manage your financial affairs if you are unable to do so. However, many financial institutions will not honor one unless it is on their form. And, if accepted, it may work too well — giving someone a “blank check” to do whatever he/she wants with your assets. It can be very effective when used with a living trust, but risky when used alone.
What is a living trust?
A living trust is a legal document that, just like a will, contains your instructions for what you want to happen to your assets when you die. But, unlike a will, a living trust avoids probate at death, can control all of your assets, and prevents the court from controlling your assets if you become incapacitated.
How does a living trust avoid probate and prevent court control of assets at incapacity?
When you set up a living trust, you transfer assets from your name to the name of your trust, which you control — such as from “Bob and Sue Smith, husband and wife” to “Bob and Sue Smith, trustees under trust dated (date of trust).”

Legally you no longer own anything (don’t panic: everything now belongs to your trust), so there is nothing for the courts to control when you die or become incapacitated. The concept is very simple, but this is what keeps you and your family out of the courts.

For additional questions about trust law, speak with our experienced Estate Planning Lawyer in Los Angeles today.

Continue to: Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 3)

Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ

In this blog series, we will be going through frequently asked questions regarding various aspects of estate planning including living trusts, probate, taxes and more.

I have a will. Why would I want a living trust?

Contrary to what you’ve probably heard, a will may not be the best plan for you and your family – primarily because a will does not avoid probate when you die. A will must be verified by the probate court before it can be enforced.  Also, because a will can only go into effect after you die, it provides no protection if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. So the court could easily take control of your assets before you die – a concern of millions of older Americans and their families.

Fortunately, there is a simple and proven alternative to a will–the revocable living trust. It avoids probate, and lets you keep control of your assets while you are living – even if you become incapacitated – and after you die.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process through which the court sees that, when you die, your debts are paid and your assets are distributed according to your will. If you don’t have a valid will, your assets are distributed according to state law.

What’s so bad about probate?

It can be expensive. Legal/executor fees and other costs must be paid before your assets can be fully distributed to your heirs. If you own property in other states, your family could face multiple probates, each one according to the laws in that state. Because these costs can vary widely, be sure to get an estimate.

It takes time, usually nine months to two years, but often longer. During part of this time, assets are usually frozen so an accurate inventory can be taken. Nothing can be distributed or sold without court and/or executor approval. If your family needs money to live on, they must request a living allowance, which may be denied.

Your family has no privacy. Probate is a public process, so any “interested party” can see what you owned and who you owed. The process “invites” disgruntled heirs to contest your will and can expose your family to unscrupulous solicitors.

Your family has no control. The probate process determines how much it will cost, how long it will take, and what information is made public.

For additional questions about trust law, speak with our experienced Estate Planning Attorney in Los Angeles today.

Continue to: Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 2)


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