Videotaping Your Will Signing Can Produce An Undesired Outcome

Some people make video recordings of their will signings in an effort to create evidence that they possess the requisite testamentary capacity. For some, this strategy may help stave off a will contest. But in most cases, the risk that the recording will provide ammunition to someone who wishes to challenge the will outweighs the potential benefits.

Assessing the downsides
Unless the person signing the will delivers a flawless, natural performance, a challenger will pounce on the slightest hesitation, apparent discomfort or momentary confusion as “proof” that the person lacked testamentary capacity. Even the sharpest among us occasionally forgets facts or mixes up our children or grandchildren’s names. Discomfort or nervousness with the recording process can easily be mistaken for confusion or duress.

You’re probably thinking, “Why can’t we just re-record portions of the video that do not look good?” The problem with this approach is that a challenger’s attorney will likely ask how much editing was done and how many “takes” were used in the video and cite that as further evidence of lack of testamentary capacity.

Implementing alternative strategies
For most people, other strategies for avoiding a will contest are preferable to recording the will signing. These include having a medical practitioner examine you and attest to your capacity immediately before the signing. It can also involve choosing reliable witnesses, including a “no contest clause” in your will, and using a funded revocable trust, which avoids probate and, therefore, is more difficult and expensive to challenge. It should also be noted that most states (if not all) have a formal process for executing a will to minimize the possibility that the will was executed by someone of diminished capacity, or under duress or coercion. For example, in this area (Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia) all wills are to be signed in the presence of two witnesses, neither of whom would be possible witnesses to the state of mind of the testator.

If you’d like more information on estate planning strategies, please contact us.

Are you familiar with fraudulent transfer laws?

A primary goal of your estate plan is to transfer wealth to your heirs according to your wishes and at the lowest possible tax cost. However, if you have creditors, be aware of fraudulent transfer laws. In a nutshell, if your creditors challenge your gifts, trusts or other strategies as fraudulent transfers, they can quickly undo your estate plan.

 Two fraud types
Most states have adopted the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (UFTA). In our region, the District of Columbia has adopted the UFTA, Maryland has adopted the Uniformed Fraudulent Conveyance Act, and Virginia has adopted neither act but does have laws regarding fraudulent transfers.

The act allows creditors to challenge transfers involving two types of fraud that you should be mindful of as you weigh your estate planning options:

1. Actual fraud. This means making a transfer or incurring an obligation “with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor,” including current creditors and probable future creditors.

Just because you weren’t purposefully trying to defraud creditors doesn’t mean you’re safe from an actual fraud challenge. A court will consider the surrounding facts and circumstances to determine whether a transfer involves fraudulent intent. So before you make gifts or place assets in a trust, consider how a court might view the transfer.

2. Constructive fraud.
This is a more significant risk for most people because it doesn’t involve intent to defraud. Under UFTA, a transfer or obligation is constructively fraudulent if you made it without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer or obligation and you either were insolvent at the time or became insolvent as a result of the transfer or obligation.

“Insolvent” means that the sum of your debts is greater than all of your assets, at a fair valuation. You’re presumed to be insolvent if you’re not paying your debts as they become due.

Generally, the constructive fraud rules protect only present creditors — that is, creditors whose claims arose before the transfer was made or the obligation was incurred.

Know your net worth
By definition, when you make a gift — either outright or in trust — you don’t receive reasonably equivalent value in exchange. So if you’re insolvent at the time, or the gift renders you insolvent, you’ve made a constructively fraudulent transfer, which means a creditor could potentially undo the transfer.

To avoid this risk, analyze your net worth before making substantial gifts. Even if you’re not having trouble paying your debts, it’s possible to meet the technical definition of insolvency.

Fraudulent transfer laws vary from state to state, so consult us about the law in your specific state.

It’s a matter of principle — and trust — when using a principle trust

For many, an important estate planning goal is to encourage their children or other heirs to lead responsible, productive lives. One tool for achieving this goal is a principle trust.

By providing your trustee with guiding values and principles (rather than the set of rigid rules found in an incentive trust), a principle trust may be an effective way to accomplish your objectives. However, not everyone will be comfortable trusting a trustee with the broad discretion a principle trust requires.

Discretion and flexibility offered
A principle trust guides the trustee’s decisions by setting forth the principles and values you hope to instill in your beneficiaries. These principles and values may include virtually any lawful criteria, from education and gainful employment to charitable endeavors and other “socially valuable” activities.

By providing the trustee with the discretion and flexibility to deal with each beneficiary and each situation on a case-by-case basis, it’s more likely that the trust will reward behaviors that are consistent with your principles and discourage those that are not.
Suppose, for example, that you value a healthy lifestyle free of drug and alcohol abuse. An incentive trust might withhold distributions (beyond the bare necessities) from a beneficiary with a drug or alcohol problem, but this may do little to change the beneficiary’s behavior. The trustee of a principle trust, on the other hand, is free to distribute funds to pay for a rehabilitation program or medical care.

At the same time, the trustee of a principle trust has the flexibility to withhold funds from a beneficiary who appears to meet your requirements “on paper,” but otherwise engages in behavior that violates your principles. Another advantage of a principle trust is that it gives the trustee the ability to withhold distributions from beneficiaries who neither need nor want the money, allowing the funds to continue growing and benefit future generations.

Not for everyone
Not everyone is comfortable providing a trustee with the broad discretion a principle trust requires. If it’s important for you to prescribe the specific conditions under which trust distributions will be made or withheld, an incentive trust may be appropriate. But keep in mind that even the most carefully drafted incentive trust can sometimes lead to unintended results, and the slightest ambiguity can invite disputes.

On the other hand, if you’re comfortable conferring greater power on your trustee, a principle trust can be one way to ensure that your wishes are carried out regardless of how your beneficiaries’ circumstances change in the future. It is also important to note that a single trust may combine several approaches to distributions, provided they are not inconsistent with each other. We can help you decide which trust type might be more appropriate for your specific situation.

Will your favorite charity accept your donation?


If your estate plan includes non-cash charitable donations or liquid asset donations with restrictions, you may wish to discuss such planned gifts with the intended recipients before you finalize your plan. This is particularly important for donations that place restrictions on the charity’s use of the gift, as well as donations of real estate or other liquid assets. In contrast, if you are making a simple cash bequest, not contacting the charity might be the better approach. If you are not interested in immediate recognition, not contacting the charity about a gift will keep the charity off your front doorstep until such time as is appropriate to let them know.

Why a charity may reject your gift
Some charities have policies of rejecting gifts that come with strings attached — they accept only unrestricted gifts. And many charities are reluctant to accept gifts of real estate or other non-cash assets that may expose them to liability or require an investment in order to convert the assets into operating funds.

If a charity rejects your gift, the property will end up back in your estate and will go to any contingent or residual beneficiaries. If these beneficiaries are not other charities, rejection of the gift may create estate tax liability.

Reconsider donating real estate
Real estate is particularly risky for nonprofits. The charity may be exposed to liability for environmental issues, zoning and building code violations, and other risks. It may require a cash investment to pay the mortgage or maintain the property. And certain types of property — such as rental properties — can generate “debt-financed income,” which may cause the nonprofit to be subject to unrelated business income tax.
Even if a charity accepts gifts of real estate, it may place strict conditions on such gifts. For example, to minimize their liability, some charities require donors to place real estate in a limited liability company (LLC) and donate LLC interests. Another option is to donate property to a supporting organization that disposes of real estate on a charity’s behalf.

Call us first
If you would like to make charitable gifts through your estate plan, contact us and we can guide you on the advisability of contacting the charity and coordinating with them to ensure that your donation would be accepted. We can then help you make the proper revisions to your estate plan.

Five Questions Single Parents Should Ask About Their Estate Plans

In many respects, estate planning for single parents of minor children is similar to estate planning for families with two parents. Parents with minor children want to provide for their children’s care and financial needs. But when only one parent is involved, certain aspects of an estate plan demand special attention. If you’re a single parent, here are five questions you should ask:

1. Are my will and other estate planning documents up to date? If you haven’t reviewed your estate plan, including any wills or trusts recently, do so as soon as possible and regularly to ensure that it reflects your current circumstances. You want a court to have to decide how to allocate your assets or determine who should care for children who were not born at the time you initially created your estate plan.

2. Have I selected an appropriate guardian? If the other parent is unavailable to take custody of your children should you become incapacitated or die suddenly, does your estate plan designate a suitable, willing guardian to care for them? Will the guardian need financial assistance to raise and educate your children? If not, you might want to preserve your wealth in a trust until your children are adults.

3. Am I adequately insured? With only one income to depend on, you need to plan carefully to ensure that you can provide for your retirement as well as your children’s financial security. Life insurance can be an effective way to augment your estate. You should also consider disability insurance as an way to address your needs in case of incapacity.

4. What if I become incapacitated? It’s particularly important for you to include in your estate plan an appropriate directive to specify your preferences for the use of life-sustaining medical procedures and to designate someone to make medical decisions on your behalf. You should also have appropriate powers of attorney or other estate documents that provides for the management of your finances during any period when you are unable to do so.

5. Should I establish a trust for my children? Creating a trust can be one of the most effective ways to provide for children regardless of their age. Trust assets are managed by one or more qualified, trusted individuals or corporate trustees, and you specify when and under what circumstances funds should be distributed to your children. A trust can be particularly useful if you have minor children. Without one, your assets may come under the control of your former spouse, the child’s other parent or a court-appointed administrator.

If you’re a single parent, we can help answer your estate planning questions.

Are you leaving your IRA to someone other than your spouse?

An IRA can be a powerful wealth-building tool, offering tax-deferred growth (tax-free in the case of a Roth IRA), asset protection and other benefits. But if you leave an IRA to your children — or to someone else other than your spouse — these benefits can be lost without careful planning.

“Inherited IRA” stretches tax benefits
A surviving spouse who inherits an IRA is permitted to roll that IRA into his or her own IRA, allowing the funds to continue growing tax-deferred or tax-free until the funds are withdrawn in retirement or after age 70½. Beneficiaries who are not your spouse are treated differently.

To take advantage of an IRA’s tax benefits, nonspouse beneficiaries must transfer the funds directly into an “inherited IRA.” Even then the beneficiaries will have to begin taking distributions by the end of the following year, but they’ll be able to stretch those distributions over their life expectancies.

This option is only available to your children or other non-spouse beneficiaries if you name them as beneficiaries (or secondary beneficiaries) of your IRA. If you leave an IRA to your estate, your children or other heirs will still receive a share of the IRA as beneficiaries of your estate, but they’ll have to withdraw the funds within five years (or, if you die after age 70½, over what would otherwise be your actuarial life expectancy).

If you name multiple nonspousal beneficiaries (several children, for example), each beneficiary will have to establish a separate inherited IRA account by the end of the year after the year of your death in order to take distributions over their respective life expectancies. If any beneficiary misses the deadline, he or she can still roll the distribution into an inherited IRA but he or she will have to use the oldest beneficiary’s life expectancy as the time over which they must remove the monies.

Be aware that, unlike other IRAs, inherited IRAs aren’t protected from creditors in bankruptcy.

Inherited IRA rules
The following special rules apply to an inherited IRA:

  • The IRA must be a new IRA set up for the specific purpose of receiving the inherited account.
  • The IRA must be specially titled in the deceased account owner’s name.
  • No other contributions may be made to the IRA.
  • No other amounts may generally be rolled into or out of the IRA.
  • Required minimum distributions will need to be made over the beneficiary’s life expectancy starting the year after the IRA owner’s death.

Please contact us if you have questions about how to address your IRA in your estate plan.

Divorce Necessitates an Estate Plan Review

There are few events that can completely upend a person’s life more than divorce. Of course, there’s the emotional toll on you and your family, but you also have to consider the divorce’s impact on your estate plan.

When you originally crafted your plan, you likely centered many of its strategies around your spouse. Thus, when divorce proceedings begin and when they conclude, it’s crucial to update your estate plan as soon as possible to avoid unintended outcomes. Don’t wait until the divorce is final.

Who’s next in line for your wealth?

Unless you wish to provide your soon-to-be former spouse with an inheritance, amend your will and any trusts to minimize or eliminate him or her as a beneficiary. In addition, unless you’re comfortable with him or her administering your estate or trust, you should designate someone else as executor or trustee. This is a good idea even if you live in one of the states where divorce automatically nullifies any gifts or bequests to an ex-spouse and automatically revokes an appointment of a former spouse as executor or trustee.

There are several reasons for this. First, if you die before the divorce is final even if you have lived separately for some time, your spouse will still inherit in accordance with your will or revocable trust, and his or her appointment as executor or trustee likely will stand.

Second, the laws in some states treat your estate plan as if your former spouse had predeceased you if you are living separately and are in the midst of divorce proceedings. If you’ve named contingent or residual beneficiaries, any property your estranged spouse would have received will go to them. If not, the property will pass according to the laws of intestate succession. But relying on these laws can be risky.

Finally, keep in mind that in many states, as long as you’re legally married, your spouse will retain elective share or other property rights to a portion of your estate. So while updating your plan soon after you decide to divorce can reduce the amount your spouse will receive if you die while you’re still married, it can be difficult to disinherit him or her completely before the divorce is final.

Seek peace of mind

If you’re going through divorce proceedings, contact us. We can help review and revise your estate plan to ensure that the proper heirs are provided for in the event of your death.

On Air: Dan Ruttenberg Shares Estate Planning Tips for the Elderly

Preparing in advance is vital if you want to protect your assets and have a say in how they are passed on. SmolenPlevy Principal Dan Ruttenberg, JD, CPA, LLM shares estate planning tips on local TV show, Senior Living in Alexandria.

“Legal documents are tools to address issues,” Ruttenberg tells Senior Living in Alexandria host Jim Roberts. It is important to have documents that keep you covered in case of death or disability. Particularly in the event of a disability, you want to have confidence in who is making decisions on your behalf.

What happens if you don’t have an estate plan in place? That will depend on the circumstances at the time — Ruttenberg explains important estate planning tips, including how to avoid probate in the complete segment above.

On Air: Daniel Ruttenberg Shares Why You Should Have a Will in Order on ABC 7

A court confirmed that music superstar Prince died without a will, which leaves complicated questions about who inherits his vast fortune. There are at least six siblings, including half siblings, who may inherit, and the confusion is just starting. In an interview on ABC 7, SmolenPlevy Principal Daniel Ruttenberg explained the problems that may occur when you die without a will, and why it’s vital to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Ruttenberg explained that without a will, Prince could not direct where his assets should go. “I think that’s a travesty,” said Ruttenberg. Often, people avoid estate planning because they don’t think they have enough assets. But Ruttenberg said you don’t need to own much to learn from Prince’s mistake — plan now and prevent the heartache and need for the court’s intervention after you’re gone.

A will can dictate to whom your money goes, protect your children’s interests in their inheritance and help avoid taxation. News reports predict Prince’s siblings will split the multi-million dollar estate, but Ruttenberg indicates that someone who claims to be Prince’s child could trump all of that.

Ruttenberg told ABC 7’s Kimberly Suiter that whoever does inherit Prince’s estate isn’t necessarily going to be better for it. Sudden wealth has its own set of problems, and many people who inherit a fortune overnight end up blowing it all quickly. They can end up broke, homeless, and in a worse position than they were before getting the money.

Death and Taxes: Gifting Money Lowers Taxes but Might Raise Anxieties

There’s a saying that death is hardest on those left behind. This is especially true if those left behind receive an unexpected and hefty estate tax bill. Estate taxes—or “death taxes,” as they’re often called— can be burdensome. Perhaps the most challenging thing about estate taxes is that they’re always changing and we generally don’t know if we’re going to die in a year when estate taxes favor our heirs.

Jason D. Smolen

Jason Smolen

For example when George Steinbrenner died in 2010, there was no estate tax. Mr. Steinbrenner’s heirs did not have to pay federal taxes on his $1.15 billion estate. Needless to say, 2010 was an anomaly— the residual effect of President Bush’s phased-out tax cuts. When the estate tax expired at the end of 2009, most people expected Congress would reinstate it. They didn’t. As a result, the heirs of those who died that year did not have to pay any estate taxes.

In the years that immediately followed, there was a lot of uncertainty as individuals and their attorneys waited to see if Congress would act. If Congress chose not to act, the estate tax law would have reverted to what it was in 2001 and any estate valued at more than $1 million would have been taxed at a rate of 55 percent. Note that the valuation of a $1 million estate includes real estate, and many homes in high-dollar real estate markets can easily be valued at more than $1 million. This leaves heirs with little after the sale of the house.

With this uncertainty, it was hard to plan. The possibility that the law would revert to the $1 million tax exemption level at the end of every year worried people. So, anticipating the worst, people acted. Starting in 2011, an individual could give away to others up to $5 million tax free—and many did just that. In an effort to protect their estate from taxation, many people increased their gifts to their loved ones. The idea being that if they died during a year when Congressional inaction resulted in a punitive estate tax, their heirs would have already received some of their legacy tax-free.

Now, four years later, the $5 million unified estate and gift taxes exemption has held steady. (Because it’s indexed for inflation, this year an individual can give away $5.43 million without it being taxed. Note that there is an unlimited charitable deduction and there is an unlimited marital deduction provided that your spouse is a US citizen.) But some people are beginning to wonder if they gave away too much, too soon.

For example, a number of people started aggressively gifting money when they were still working. Now that they’re retiring, they are beginning to wonder if their estate is sufficient to see them through their retirement years. It’s a very different feeling to be living on resources instead of earning resources. It’s not uncommon to be concerned about spending down principal and outliving it.

Daniel H. Ruttenberg

Daniel Ruttenberg

When planning your estate, you should give serious consideration to the “what ifs” that loom down the road and structure your estate accordingly. While giving money tax-free to your loved ones is nice, make sure you can take care of yourself. It is important to be prepared. You don’t want any surprises when it comes to your finances. Below are things to consider to make sure you keep what you need while still giving away what you want:

1. Be realistic about your expenses. Most people underestimate what they spend. They focus on the mortgage payment, a car payment, insurance, and the groceries but discount the monies spent on clothes, travel, hobbies and pets, home repairs, and utilities? The truth is, we all spend more money than we think we do. When planning your gifting, look at what your estate’s worth and carve out a realistic amount of money for what you’ll need to live comfortably and do the things you love over the course of many years. Even if you have long-term care insurance, you may still need to pay for nursing care or help if your health fails – this is something else you should consider. Work with your attorney to project future expenses and plan accordingly.

2. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate. If you’re someone who gave away a lot of money in recent years and are now beginning to worry it might have been too much, don’t panic. Sit down with your estate attorney and look at how much you gave, how much you have left and how much you need to live on. If you need to scale back for a few years and not gift to others for a while, that’s okay. Don’t let the fear of possibly punitive estate tax laws dictate your actions to the detriment of your own financial security.

3. Live the plan. Once you have a plan, live it. It’s hard to transition from making your assets grow to living on them. It leads to a lot of second guessing. But chances are, if you created an estate plan with your attorney, you’re on the right path. If you have questions or are worried that you need to modify your estate plan, then certainly sit down with him or her again and talk it over.

Again, the trouble with the future is that it’s uncertain. We don’t know what Congress will do and we don’t know when we’re going to die. But despite this uncertainty, it is possible to plan so you’re able to live the life you want to live.

Read more articles from the Summer 2015 Report from Counsel here.