Hastily choosing an executor can lead to problems after your death

Choosing the right executor

Choosing the right executor — sometimes known as a “personal representative” — is critical to the smooth administration of an estate. Yet many people treat this decision as an afterthought. Given an executor’s many responsibilities and complex tasks, it pays to put some thought into the selection.

Job description

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Collecting, protecting and taking inventory of the estate’s assets,
  • Filing the estate’s tax returns and paying its taxes,
  • Handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others,
  • Making investment decisions,
  • Distributing property to beneficiaries, and
  • Liquidating assets if necessary.

You don’t necessarily have to choose a professional executor or someone with legal or financial expertise. Often, lay-people can handle the job, hiring professionals as needed (at the estate’s expense) to handle matters beyond their expertise.

Candidate considerations

Many people choose a family member or close friend for the job, but this can be a mistake for two reasons. First, a person who’s close to you may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. Second, if your executor stands to gain from the will, he or she may have a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members.

If either of these issues is a concern, consider choosing an independent outsider as executor. Some people appoint co-executors — one trusted friend who knows the family and understands its dynamics and one independent executor with business, financial or legal expertise.

Designate a backup

Regardless of whom you choose, be sure to designate at least one backup executor to serve in the event that your first choice dies or becomes incapacitated before it’s time to settle your estate — or turns down the job. Contact us for answers to your questions about choosing the right executor.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Review and revise your estate plan to reflect life changes during the past year

review and revise your estate plan

Your estate plan shouldn’t be a static document. It needs to change as your life changes. Year end is the perfect time to check whether any life events have taken place in the past 12 months or so that affect your estate plan.

And the plan should be reviewed periodically anyway to ensure that it still meets your main objectives and is up to date.

When revisions might be needed

What life events might require you to update or modify estate planning documents? The following list isn’t all-inclusive by any means, but it can give you a good idea of when revisions may be needed:

Your marriage, divorce or remarriage,The birth or adoption of a child, grandchild or great-grandchild,The death of a spouse or another family member,The illness or disability of you, your spouse or another family member, A child or grandchild reaching the age of majority, Sizable changes in the value of assets you own, The sale or purchase of a principal residence or second home,Your retirement or retirement of your spouse,Receipt of a large gift or inheritance, and Sizable changes in the value of assets you own.

It’s also important to review your estate plan when there’ve been changes in federal or state income tax or estate tax laws, such as under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law last December.

Will and powers of attorney

As part of your estate plan review, closely examine your will, powers of attorney and health care directives.

If you have minor children, your will should designate a guardian to care for them should you die prematurely, as well as make certain other provisions, such as creating trusts to benefit your children until they reach the age of majority, or perhaps even longer.

Your durable power of attorney authorizes someone to handle your financial affairs if you’re disabled or otherwise unable to act. Likewise, a medical durable power of attorney authorizes someone to handle your medical decision making if you’re disabled or unable to act. The powers of attorney expire upon your death.

Typically, these powers of attorney are coordinated with a living will and other health care directives. A living will spells out your wishes concerning life-sustaining measures in the event of a terminal illness. It says what means should be used, withheld or withdrawn.

Changes in your family or your personal circumstances might cause you to want to change beneficiaries, guardians or power of attorney agents you’ve previously named.

Revise as needed

The end of the year is a natural time to reflect on the past year and to review and revise your estate plan — especially if you’ve experienced major life changes. We can help determine if any revisions are needed.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Is a significant portion of your wealth concentrated in a single stock?

Reduce Your Investment Risk

Estate planning and investment risk management go hand in hand. After all, an estate plan is effective only if you have some wealth to transfer to the next generation. One of the best ways to reduce your investment risk is to diversify your holdings. But it’s not unusual for affluent people to end up with a significant portion of their wealth concentrated in one or two stocks.

There are many ways this can happen, including the exercise of stock options, participation in equity-based compensation programs, or receipt of stock in a merger or acquisition.

Sell the stock

To reduce your investment risk, the simplest option is to sell some or most of the stock and reinvest in a more diversified portfolio. This may not be an option, however, if you’re not willing to pay the resulting capital gains taxes, if there are legal restrictions on the amount you can sell and the timing of a sale, or if you simply wish to hold on to the stock.

To soften the tax hit, consider selling the stock gradually over time to spread out the capital gains. Or, if you’re charitably inclined, contribute the stock to a charitable remainder trust (CRT). The trust can sell the stock tax-free, reinvest the proceeds in more diversified investments, and provide you with a current tax deduction and a regular income stream. (Be aware that CRT payouts are taxable — usually a combination of ordinary income, capital gains and tax-free amounts.)

Keep the stock

To reduce your risk without selling the stock:

  • Use a hedging technique. For example, purchase put options to sell your shares at a set price.
  • Buy other securities to rebalance your portfolio. Consider borrowing the funds you need, using the concentrated stock as collateral.
  • Invest in a stock protection fund. These funds allow investors who own concentrated stock positions in different industries to pool their risks, essentially insuring their holdings against catastrophic loss.

If you have questions about specific assets in your estate, contact us. We can help you preserve as much of your estate as possible so that you have more to pass on to your loved ones

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Your original will: Does your family know where to locate it?

estate planning documents

In a world that’s increasingly paperless, you’re likely becoming accustomed to conducting a variety of transactions digitally. But when it comes to your last will and testament, only an original, signed document will do.

A photocopy isn’t good enough

Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court. If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you’d died without a will.

It’s possible to overcome this presumption — for example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family can locate your original will when they need it.

Storage options

There isn’t one right place to keep your will — it depends on your circumstances and your comfort level with the storage arrangements. Wherever you decide to keep your will, it’s critical that 1) it is stored safely, and 2) your family knows how to find it. Options include:

  • Having your accountant, attorney or another trusted advisor hold your will and making sure your family knows how to contact him or her, or
  • Storing your will at your home or office in a fireproof lockbox or safe and ensuring that someone you trust knows where it is and how to retrieve it.

Storing your original will and other estate planning documents safely — and communicating their location to your loved ones — will help ensure that your wishes are carried out. Contact us if you have questions about other ways to ensure that your estate plan achieves your goals.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Tax law uncertainty requires an estate plan that can roll with the changes

future tax lawEvents of the last decade have taught us that taxes are anything but certain. Case in point: Congress is mulling abolishing gift and estate taxes as part of tax reform. So how can people who hope to still have long lifespans ahead of them plan their estates when the tax landscape may look dramatically different 20, 30 or 40 years from now? The answer is by taking a flexible approach that allows you to hedge your bets.

Conflicting strategies

Many traditional estate planning techniques evolved during a time when the gift and estate tax exemption was relatively low and the top estate tax rate was substantially higher than the top income tax rate. Under those circumstances, it usually made sense to remove assets from the estate early to shield future asset appreciation from estate taxes.

Today, the exemption has climbed to $5.49 million and the top gift and estate tax rate (40%) is roughly the same as the top income tax rate (39.6%). If your estate’s worth is within the exemption amount, estate tax isn’t a concern and there’s no gift and estate tax benefit to making lifetime gifts.

But under current law there’s a big income tax advantage to keeping assets in your estate: The basis of assets transferred at your death is stepped up to their current fair market value, so beneficiaries can turn around and sell them without generating capital gains tax liability. Assets you transfer by gift, however, retain your basis, so beneficiaries who sell appreciated assets face a significant tax bill.

Flexibility is key

A carefully designed trust can make it possible to remove assets from your estate now, while giving the trustee the authority to force the assets back into your estate if that turns out to be the better strategy. This allows you to shield decades of appreciation from estate tax while retaining the option to include the assets in your estate should income tax savings become a priority (assuming the step-up in basis remains, which is also uncertain).

For the technique to work, the trust must be irrevocable, the grantor (you) must retain no control over the trust assets (including the ability to remove and replace the trustee) and the trustee should have absolute discretion over distributions. In the event that estate inclusion becomes desirable, the trustee should have the authority to cause such inclusion by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or giving you a general power of appointment over the trust assets.

In determining whether to exercise this option, the trustee should consider several factors, including potential estate tax liability, if any, the beneficiaries’ potential liability for federal and state capital gains taxes, and whether the beneficiaries plan to sell or hold onto the assets.

Consider the risk

This trust type offers welcome flexibility, but it’s not risk-free. Contact us for additional information.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.