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The Unintended Consequences of Bad Estate Planning
We always advise people to get estate planning done. If you don’t decide what will happen to your assets upon your death, the state will decide for you.
But sometimes, despite best intentions, an estate plan turns out to cause unforeseen problems. That can happen with bad planning, which is sometimes worse than no planning at all. To illustrate this point, let me tell you a story.
What John & Nancy Planned For
Imagine a man named John in the following situation. John’s wife of 50 years, Nancy, recently died. John and Nancy thought they were being smart when they got estate planning done many years ago – and they were. But it turned out to be bad planning, because it didn’t take into account the fact that laws, people, and family dynamics change over time.
When Nancy and John sat down and talked about what they wanted to happen to her estate when she died, they agreed that she would split the estate up: part of her assets would go to their children, and part would go to her husband.
First you need to know that the government allows an unlimited amount of assets to be left to a spouse tax-free upon death. But the government doesn’t allow you to leave an unlimited amount tax-free to heirs or anybody else. The amount it allows you to leave tax-free is called the “applicable exclusion amount” (formerly called the “unified credit”).
So together Nancy and John decided that they would create a trust, and into that trust would go the full amount of money up to the amount of the applicable exclusion amount, so that her children could get that money and not have to pay taxes on it. The key is that here, she didn’t specify the exact dollar amount to go into the trust, she only said that the trust was to be filled to the point of whatever the current exclusion amount was. Her husband was named as trustee to control the trust during his lifetime, and the full value of the trust would go to the children upon his death.
What was left over from her estate after the trust was “filled up” would go to John. No matter what amount that was, it would be tax-free, because they were married.
So far so good. This kind of estate planning is pretty common, and it’s a smart way to maximize the amount of money you pass on to future generations while reducing the amount of taxes paid to the government. It works out well – but not all time.
When John and Nancy made this plan, it seemed great. The applicable exclusion amount at that time was $600,000, which was the limit for many years. Her estate was worth a total of $2 million, so during the planning phase, they expected that upon her death, $600,000 would go into the trust for the children, of which John would be the trustee. The other $1.4 million would go straight to John, including her half of the house they owned together.
Had she died soon after completing the plan, it would have worked out just the way they intended. But that didn’t happen.
What John & Nancy Got Instead
By the time Nancy died in early 2015, the applicable exclusion amount was not $600,000, but $5.43 million – a much larger amount. The full value of her estate went into the trust for the children, and her husband got nothing free and clear. Not even the house.
This was not what Nancy intended. Because of bad planning, everyone is in a difficult situation. Not only are they dealing with the grief of having lost their mother and wife, the family members now have to deal with the consequences of the faulty estate planning.
As the trustee of a trust that will go to the kids upon his death, the wishes of the father are now at direct odds with the wishes of the children. John, who had no substantial assets of his own and was counting on having some of his wife’s estate when she died (which is exactly what they thought was going to happen), wants money from the trust to live on. The kids want the trust to stay as it is, so they get the full value amount upon John’s death.
John has some limited access to the assets of the trust during his lifetime. That is, he can get his hands on some of the money, but not all of it. He’s entitled to the income from that trust during his lifetime; plus a total of 5% of the value of the trust, or $5,000, whichever is greater; plus expenses related to his health, education, maintenance and support (sometimes abbreviated “HEMS”). He would ask the trustee – in this case, himself – for the money to spend on those things. If they were considered legitimate expenses, he could spend it.
But here’s the rub: whether something counts as a legitimate or not varies from person to person. The IRS determines this, and they base that on someone’s standard of living. Donald Trump’s expenses considered “legitimate” would be substantially different from those of someone who makes $30,000 per year and lives very modestly. And if the trustee (John) disagrees with the future beneficiaries (the kids) over what’s legitimate, then they have to go to court.
So if, for example, John says he needs to use money from the trust to go to France for a year because that’s necessary for his maintenance, and the children disagree, they have to sue him.
And if the father wants to sell the house to move somewhere else, he can’t do it easily because it’s not his free and clear – half of the house is in the trust. If he goes ahead and sells the house anyway, it’s likely that his children will sue him.
As you can see, the situation is very complicated and it’s begging for lawsuits.
You don’t want to be in this situation. But how can you avoid it?
Avoid This Situation With Good Estate Planning
Remember that estate planning should be based on you, your unique situation and your family. It should not be based on whatever pre-made forms an attorney has ready. It must be about you.
1. Know that you have options.
Nancy and John could have decided to do something else instead. For example, Nancy could have left everything to John, and he could have used a “disclaimer” to disclaim anything he didn’t want, and that would go into the trust for the children. That’s just one option, but there are others. The point is, you don’t have to go with the first estate planning option presented to you if it’s not what’s best for you and your family.
2. Ask a lot of questions.
You should ask yourself what you want to happen with your estate when you die, and you may include your family in those discussions if you wish. You should ask questions before choosing an attorney to help you draw up these documents. Has he done these kinds of things before? What examples can she give you of the most complicated estate planning she has done?
Ask “what if” questions about the plans you’ve created.
• What if by the time I die, the applicable exclusion amount is $20 million? What if it’s $0? What will happen to my estate and my family then?
• What if my spouse remarries after my death? Will any of my money go to the new spouse’s children?
• What if one of my children does something I disapprove of after I die, do they still inherit a portion of my estate? Can I include something in my will to prevent that from happening?
An attorney experienced in complex estate planning will be able to answer these questions clearly and will be able to pose additional questions you hadn’t thought of.
3. Review your plan periodically with an attorney.
As you’ve seen, family dynamics can be complicated, especially when children from different marriages are in the picture, and things change. The amount excluded from estate tax is not set in stone, but is determined by Congress and therefore can change in any given year. That alone could have a huge impact on how your current estate plan will play out in the real world.
Again, ask questions.
• With the way things are now, will my original intention be honored?
• Has anything significant happened in my situation (births, deaths, estrangements with family members) to affect my original intentions?
• What changes must I make to ensure that my estate is distributed the way I want?
Learn More About Personalized Estate Planning
So what about your estate plan? Is it customized to you? Would it honor your intentions? If the answer is no, or you’re not sure, contact South Carolina attorney Gem McDowell and his associatess at 843-284-1021 to discuss your own estate planning needs.