Finance & Law

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By Linda Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: When I was 3, my parents adopted a baby and named her Mary. My mother died seven years later and my father remarried. My father and his second wife had two children together. My father recently died without a will. My half-siblings insist that since Mary is not my father’s biological child, she is not entitled to a share of his estate. 

THE QUESTION: Are they correct? 

THE ANSWER: Fortunately for Mary, your half-siblings are wrong. 

HOW IT WORKS: If your father legally adopted Mary, she has the same right to a share of your father’s estate as you and your father’s other biological children. The law in New York is quite clear on that point. 

Section 7(c) of the New York intestacy statute governs how an estate is distributed when someone dies without a will. It states that “the right of an adopted child to take a distributive share … continue[s] as provided in the domestic relations law.” 

Domestic Relations Law Section 117 explicitly states that “[t]he adoptive parents or parent and the adoptive child shall sustain toward each other the legal relation of parent and child and shall have all the rights and be subject to all the duties of that relation including the rights of inheritance from and through each other …”

In other words, the relationship between Mary and your father is legally the same as the relationship between you and your father and the relationship between your half-siblings and your father. As such, she is entitled to the same percentage of his estate as any of his biological children. 

In addition, if Mary had predeceased your father and had children of her own, her children would be entitled to share the inheritance that would have otherwise passed to Mary. 

It is worth noting that Domestic Relations Law Section 117 not only sets forth the rights of the adoptive child but also the rights of the adoptive parent. If Mary had predeceased your father without a spouse or children of her own, your father, as her adoptive parent, would be entitled to her entire estate. 

If you are going to be petitioning the Surrogate’s Court for letters of administration so you can handle your father’s estate, you should consult with an experienced estate attorney to ensure that the administration process is handled properly and proceeds smoothly despite the position taken by your half-siblings.   

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning, real estate, small business services and litigation from her East Setauket office. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Commonly, clients will create a trust to protect certain assets in case they need to apply for government benefits as they get older and require assistance with their daily activities. While certain provisions of this type of trust will be consistent from client to client, not all trusts are the same. Understanding your trust is the first step to successfully achieving your estate planning goals. 

The drafting process of the trust document is vital because it outlines the rules of the trust. Without understanding these rules, the creator of the trust or the trustee may be in jeopardy of making the trust assets available when they are assessed for Medicaid eligibility.  

The irrevocable trust for Medicaid purposes will state who the creator of the trust is and who is appointed by that person to serve as trustee of the trust. The document should also include a provision stating that the creator of the trust will not have access to any trust principal. 

Beyond that, multiple decisions need to be made by the client, in consultation with their attorney. These decisions will include whether or not the creator will have access to income generated from the trust, who will be able to remove a trustee or appoint a successor trustee, if the creator can change the beneficiaries of the trust and other critical points for the operations of the trust during the creator’s lifetime and after death.  

Part of the rules of the trust will include the distribution at the death of the creator. The trust says who will receive the assets at that time and how they will receive those assets. The distributions may be outright or in a further trust to protect the beneficiary from creditors or from losing government benefits they are receiving.  

If there is real property owned by the trust, the document could also direct who may live there before and after death, who is responsible for the costs associated with the property and whether it should be sold upon the death of the creator.  

Once the document is signed by the creator and the trustee(s), the next important step is to fund the trust. This means changing the ownership or title of certain assets to the name of the trust. It will make sense for a financial adviser and accountant, if you have either, to be aware of your trust and which assets you have placed into it. These advisers can work with you and your attorney to determine which assets to transfer into the trust and which to keep in your individual name. 

Trusts are often funded with real property, bank accounts, investment accounts and savings bonds. All assets that are transferred into the trust are then managed by the named trustee. This trustee can sell the assets in the trust, collect rents or any other income and reinvest the assets in alternative ways. The precise powers that the trustee holds are dictated by the trust document.  

A trust is a live entity that owns property and assets. It should be reviewed regularly, at least every five years, to make sure the trust rules are being followed and the trust continues to achieve your estate planning goals. Your trusted estate planning and elder law adviser should review these documents with you.  

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

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Linda Toga, Esq.

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I am a widow with modest assets and a small IRA. I have two grown children and two young grandchildren. My friends have been urging me to see an attorney about developing an estate plan.

THE QUESTION: Considering the size of my estate, is that really necessary? 

THE ANSWER: The short answer to your question is a resounding “Yes.” Estate planning is not just for the wealthy and is not limited to the preparation of a will. Estate planning touches on everything from wills, trusts and powers of attorney to health care proxies, living wills and spousal waivers. Even if you just want a will, there are countless issues that you should discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that your will accurately reflects your wishes and takes into account your specific circumstances. 

The reason professional help is advisable is that, for the most part, people don’t know what they don’t know. In other words, a person can fill out a form will and sign it but, if she doesn’t know what questions to ask or what issues should be considered, she likely won’t know the adverse consequences of her uninformed choices. The end result is an estate plan that does not reflect the goals and wishes of the person, or worse, one that leads to protracted litigation. 

To avoid that, you should discuss with an attorney how your assets are titled and whether all of your assets will pass under your will. Assets that are jointly owned with someone else or that are subject to a beneficiary designation are nonprobate assets and will not pass under your will. How such assets are going to be distributed should be taken into consideration when developing an estate plan.  

You should also discuss with your attorney whether or not your probate assets will be passed in equal shares to your children. One question that needs to be addressed is whether you want your executor to take into consideration nonprobate assets that may pass to your children or loans that you may have given your children when determining the amount of their share. Another is how you want your estate to be divided in the event one of your children predeceases you. 

If you want the share allocated to a predeceased child to pass to his/her children, you should discuss with your attorney the option of including a trust in the will to protect the assets passing to the minor grandchildren.

Although both of your children would have equal rights to be named administrator of your estate if you were to die without a will, you should discuss with your attorney what is involved in the probate of your will and the administration of your estate. If your children do not both live locally, it may be burdensome to have them serve as co-executors. Or perhaps they don’t get along and naming a third party to handle your estate would be advantageous. Discussing these issues is an important part of developing even the most basic estate plan. 

As mentioned above, as part of your estate planning you should also discuss with an attorney the benefits of having a power of attorney, health care proxy and living will in place. Each of these documents plays an important role in an estate plan by either ensuring that your affairs are taken care of in the event you lack capacity or by making your wishes known with respect to medical treatment and end-of-life care.

Your attorney can advise you as to the duties and responsibilities of the agents named in a power of attorney and health care proxy. This will allow you to consider possible agents in light of the roles they would assume if named. Discussing this with your estate planning attorney will enable you to make informed choices. If you don’t engage in the process, you are essentially forfeiting the right to choose who will assist with the management of your assets while you are alive and who may be called upon to make life and death medical decisions on your behalf. When asked, most people admit that they want to be the one to choose. 

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, real estate, marital agreements and litigation from her East Setauket office. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

In New York State, any individual over the age of 18 may designate an individual to make medical decisions on his/her behalf by signing a health care proxy and designating a health care agent.  

The health care agent is only authorized to act if your doctors determine you can no longer make your own medical decisions. By signing this document and designating an agent, you avoid any confusion or issues when it comes time for your family to make a medical decision on your behalf as your family and the doctors already know who you want to make those decisions. 

A valid health care proxy will allow your health care agent to make medical decisions for you if you cannot with any health care professional, not only decisions while you are in a hospital or nursing home.   

Additionally, when signing a health care proxy, it is also very important to sign a second document, called a living will, which states your preferences as they relate to life-sustaining treatment (medical treatments/procedures that, if not provided, will result in the patient’s death). Examples of life-sustaining treatments include cardiac pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), a feeding tube and ventilator.    

A living will is important because, although your health care agent can make most medical decisions on your behalf, a health care agent must know your wishes as they relate to life-sustaining treatment in order to make those specific decisions on your behalf. A correctly executed living will is “proof positive” of your wishes as they relate to life-sustaining treatment and cannot be questioned by other family members who may disagree. 

If you do not have a health care proxy and are admitted to a hospital or nursing home, the Family Health Care Decisions Act enacted by New York State will determine who can make medical decisions on your behalf. This act provides a hierarchical list of people who may make your medical decisions if your doctors determine that you lack the capacity to make your own medical decisions.   

The list is: court-appointed guardian, spouse/domestic partner, a child who is over 18 years old, a parent, a sibling or a close friend. The issue many people may encounter is that most people have more than one child who can act as the person who will make their health care decisions. In this situation, the doctors would have to specify one of the children to make the decisions, which can cause tension and disagreement among the children. Further, the Family Health Care Decisions Act is only applicable to decisions while a patient is in the hospital or a nursing home. Once a patient is discharged, the person designated to make the medical decisions no longer has authority to do so.  

In order to be certain the person you want is empowered to make your medical decisions, a health care proxy is the preferable option. It is also wise to sign a living will so your health care agent knows your specific wishes as they relate to life-sustaining treatment. It is best to consult with an estate planning attorney who can advise you on all your options and ensure your documents are valid.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office. 

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By Linda Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I am one of four children. My siblings are Joe, Bill and Mary. My mother died last month. About 15 years ago, she went to her attorney and had a will prepared in which she named me as executor.

Rather than divide her estate equally between her four children, my mother essentially disinherited my brother Joe and divided her estate equally between me, Bill and Mary. At the time she executed her will, the reason my mother gave for her decision to leave Joe out was that he ignored her and was never around when she needed help.

About 10 years ago, Joe moved to a house within a mile of my mother’s house and started spending time with her. He has encouraged his children to visit their grandmother and my mother and Joe’s wife and children have actually vacationed together. Since he lived closer to my mother than any of her other children, Joe became the one my mother relied upon whenever she needed assistance of any kind.

Over the years, Joe and my mother developed a very special relationship. I don’t know why my mother never revised her will but I am convinced, based upon her relationship with Joe and things that she told me, that she would want him to receive a share of his estate.

THE QUESTION: As the named executor, am I able to divide my mother’s estate into four equal shares so that Joe receives one-fourth of the estate? I feel terrible leaving him out but Mary and Bill are adamant that I must follow the instructions set forth in my mother’s will. Are they correct?

THE ANSWER: Unfortunately for Joe, Bill and Mary are correct. As executor, it is your responsibility to marshal your mother’s assets and to distribute them in accordance with the terms of her will. As much as you may want to include Joe, and as convinced as you may be that that is what you mother may have wanted at the time of her death, you do not have any discretion with respect to the distribution of your mother’s assets.

If you unilaterally decide to pass part of the estate to Joe, Bill and Mary will be well within their rights to ask the court to remove you as executor. They could also ask that the judge surcharge you so that you would be personally responsible for the funds that were diverted to Joe.

The only way you can pass a share of the estate to Joe is if Bill and Mary agree that Joe should share in the estate. If everyone is in agreement, it is simply a matter of you, Bill and Mary each transferring a portion of your inheritance to Joe. If Bill and Mary do not want to share, you can always give Joe some or all of what you are entitled to under the will. As long as Bill and Mary receive what they are entitled to under the will, they will not have a basis for objecting.

It is unfortunate that your mother did not review her will and revise it once her relationship with Joe improved. If she had gone back to her attorney, it would have been relatively easy for the attorney to prepare a new will for your mother in which all of her children were named as equal beneficiaries, or to prepare a codicil to her will that would have the same end result.

It is important that people understand that estate planning is not the sort of thing that is done once and forgotten. Wills and other estate planning documents should be reviewed periodically and changed to reflect changed circumstances. If your mother had revised her will or had a new will prepared that took into consideration her improved relationship with Joe, you would not be in the position you are now of trying to make things right.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, real estate, marital agreements and litigation from her East Setauket office. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

We live in a modern world where blended families are becoming more and more common.  

A blended family is one made up of two spouses where at least one spouse has children from a previous marriage or relationship. Blended families can also include two spouses, their children and grandchildren from multiple relationships. Because of the complexity involved in a blended family, proper estate planning is essential to ensure a client’s goals are met.

Spouses used to create what we refer to as the “sweetheart will,” which distributes assets from the first deceased spouse to the surviving spouse, and then to their children upon the death of the surviving spouse. A sweetheart will does not adequately provide for individuals who have been married multiple times and have children from previous relationships for whom they want to provide.  

For example, Joe and Molly get married and have three children together. Molly dies and Joe gets remarried to Cindy. Cindy has two children from a prior relationship. If Joe and Cindy were to create sweetheart wills, upon the death of the first spouse, assets would be transferred to the second spouse, and upon his or her death, assets will only go to the children of the second spouse.  

If Joe were to be the first to die, his children would effectively be disinherited. Joe and Cindy may instead want to provide for all five children in both of their wills, or in the alternative, ensure that each spouse’s assets go to their children from their prior relationship.  

To make matters even more complicated, under New York State law, a surviving spouse has an automatic right to take a one-third share of their deceased spouse’s estate. This is something to consider when deciding what type of plan to have and for whom you want to provide. Additional considerations should be given to the likelihood of an estate plan being contested, since members from different families may be involved and may not be happy with the new relationship.  

As elder law attorneys, we are always thinking ahead and how to protect assets down the road from Medicaid. If there is a good chance a spouse will need long-term care in the near future, we will want to protect any funds that may affect eligibility. Therefore, a transfer of all assets to a surviving spouse may not be the appropriate plan under these certain circumstances. 

Beyond the blended family, similar issues may arise in nontraditional family situations, such as partners who decide not to get married; spouses with no children, but instead have close friends for whom they want to provide; and those who have a desire to leave assets to pets, charities or the like.

A family can come in all different shapes and sizes. It is therefore important to meet with an estate planning and elder law attorney to discuss your specific goals and come up with a creative way to accomplish the best estate plan for you.   

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

The best way to manage your own affairs while you are alive and to provide properly for your beneficiaries at your death is to have an estate plan. There is a distinction between having a “plan” and having documents. The close attention to detail, knowledge of the law and past experiences of the attorney you are dealing with should help you create the plan that fits your own circumstances.

The first step of the process is to gather a comprehensive list of your assets. Since everything in the plan is different depending on the personal circumstances, it is important for the attorney advising you to know what type of assets you have and in what quantity. An individual with a home worth $400,000 may require a very different plan than an individual with the same amount of assets that are held in cash or retirement accounts. 

Once you have your list of assets together, you can review it with the attorney and discuss the goals of the representation. For many clients, the primary goal is to make sure they are taken care of during their own lifetime with the maximum amount of control over their assets without concern for what happens upon their death, while others may have concern for those they wish to benefit at their death.  

Take the single mother with a disabled child; while she is concerned about her own well-being, she would likely consider the well-being of her child to be equally as important. By contrast, a single person with no children will have different concerns and, therefore, a different estate plan. 

Discussing your goals with an attorney is the greatest value the attorney can provide. Estate planning attorneys are more than just document drafters. They are advisers. With your attorney, you should be running through the different scenarios that may occur at the time of your death and making sure that you are satisfied with the outcome of each based on the plan you decide to create. 

The estate planning attorney can flag for you other issues that may be of concern. Depending on your age, income and assets, it may be prudent to discuss long-term care insurance or asset protection planning for Medicaid purposes. You can discuss whether or not your beneficiaries will need a trust for any reason, including creditor protection, protection of government benefits or protection from themselves if they overspend and undersave. 

After you have discussed your assets and goals with the attorney, they can recommend options for you. Often, there is more than one option available. A description of the pros and cons of each plan and the cost to you should help you determine what is best in your circumstance. This is the point at which the documents can be created in draft form. If you are satisfied with the documents as written, they will then be signed with the attorney. Each document will have its own signing requirements for validity that will include the presence of witnesses and/or a notary public.  

If you have never created an estate plan or have not reviewed it in the last five years, you should reach out to an attorney to start the process.  

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

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By Linda Toga Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: Last year my aunt Sue died without a will. She was widowed and owned a house that had been in our family for generations. The understanding was that when she died, the next generation, including me and my siblings, would inherit the house. Recently, my aunt’s daughter, Mary, signed a deed transferring the house to herself and her only sibling, Jane. 

THE QUESTION: Did Mary have the legal authority to transfer the property? 

THE ANSWER: Unfortunately for you, as Sue’s daughter and a distributee of Sue’s estate, Mary was well within her rights to transfer the property. If Sue had a will in which she left you and your siblings a share of the house, Mary would not have been able to transfer the property to herself and Jane. She would have first been required to obtain letters testamentary from the Surrogate’s Court (assuming she was named as executrix in the will) and she would then have to abide by the terms of the will by transferring the house to the beneficiaries named in the will. 

However, since Sue died without a will, by law title to the house automatically vested in her children when she died. In other words, as Sue’s only children, Mary and Jane immediately became the legal owners of the house when Sue died. The law that addresses vesting does not apply to you or your siblings because you are not in Sue’s direct bloodline. If Sue did not have any children, the outcome may have been different.  

If Sue wanted you and your siblings to have a share of the family home, she should have had an estate planning attorney prepare a will for her in which her wishes with respect to the property were memorialized. The executor of the estate would then be obligated to carry out Sue’s wishes and transfer the property to you, your sibling and any other beneficiaries set forth in the will. Absent a will, you have no claim to the house. 

Linda M. Toga provides legal services in the areas of estate planning/elder law, probate and estate administration, real estate, small business service and litigation from her East Setauket office.

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

For many clients the idea of creating and funding an irrevocable trust with an end goal of protecting assets should the need for long-term care arise raises questions and concerns about the potential tax implications.

Specifically, questions surrounding taxation of the assets that are transferred to the trust and concerns about losing property tax exemptions such as STAR and Enhanced STAR are common in our practice.

Although there is some truth to the idea that there could be negative higher taxation when income is earned on assets held in a trust, the grantor trust rules of the Internal Revenue Code provide that where a trust is created as a grantor trust, following the rules set forth under the IRC Sections 671 through 678, the income earned and assets held within will be treated for tax purposes as if they are still owned by the grantor. As a result, any income earned by the trust will be taxed at the (presumably) lower rate of the grantor and all tax abatements can be retained as the grantor will typically retain beneficial ownership of the property.

Although grantor trusts are subject to the same general rule for tax reporting as other trusts, specifically trusts with gross income that exceeds $600 are required to report, the method of reporting is far less complicated than you may expect. The trust may file a form 1041, U.S. Income Tax for Estates and Trusts form. In this case we refer to the 1041 as an “information only” return, listing the name of the trust, the tax identification number and the address used for notices on the trust.

By doing this the IRS is placed on notice that the trust exists, and that all income and any other relevant information will be reported on the grantor’s personal return. This provides that the grantor will be treated as the owner of the assets held in the trust; and, accordingly, all income earned from the trust is reportable on the grantor’s personal tax return. Although there are alternate reporting methods available, we have found this method to be the most convenient for most of our clients.

With respect to the transfer of real property to an irrevocable grantor trust, because the grantor is considered the beneficial owner of the trust all tax benefits that flow to individual owners of real property will continue on uninterrupted. Where the homeowner benefits from tax reductions through the STAR or Enhanced STAR program, veteran’s benefits or any other tax rebate, transfers into a properly drafted irrevocable grantor trust will allow those benefits to continue.

Finally, because the assets are still considered part of the grantor’s estate for tax purposes, upon the death of the grantor, the beneficiaries will benefit from a full step-up in basis on the value of the home or any other appreciated asset, eliminating any concerns about capital gains implications.   

By creating and funding an irrevocable grantor trust, the grantor is able to protect assets if the need for long-term care arises while preserving grantor tax status and tax advantages and exemptions.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.