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Monday, December 7, 2015

Controlling Estate Planning Through Trusts

How can I control my assets after death?

The practice of estate planning is dedicated to preserving an individual’s control over his or her assets after death. A simple will can control which individuals receive what assets, but a more thorough plan has the potential to do much more. Establishing a trust is the most common method used to exercise this kind of control. 

A trust can issue a bequest restricted by a condition; for example, a trust might be established to pay out $10,000.00 to a specific grandchild only once he or she has reached 18 years of age. Multiple payments can be made to the beneficiaries as long as the trust is funded. The trust can stipulate that the grandchild may have to graduate from college to receive the money, or even that he or she must graduate from a specific school with a minimum grade-point average or membership in a particular fraternity or sorority.

A trust can make the condition of payment as specific or as broad as the creator of the trust wishes. It may, for instance, bequeath benefits to a humanitarian organization on condition that the organization continues to provide food and shelter to the homeless. There is no limit to the number of conditions permissible in a trust document. Even when the conditions go against public policy and general norms and mores established by society, as long as the conditions may be met legally, they will be upheld by the court.

In order to create a trust, there must be a capital investment to fund it and a trustee must be named. The trustee is responsible for protecting the assets of the trust, investing them to the best of his or her ability, managing real estate and other long-term assets, interpreting the trust document, communicating regularly with the beneficiaries of the trust and performing all of these actions with a high level of integrity. Trust assets may be used to pay for expenses of managing the trust as well as to provide a stipend for the trustee if so provided for in the trust document.

If a trust document is not well written, it may be the target of a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the trust and disburse the assets held therein. Even if the trust is defended successfully, the costs of this challenge may deplete its coffers and frustrate the very reason for its creation. In order to avoid these possible pitfalls, it is imperative that a trust document be drafted by an attorney with a high degree of experience in estate planning law.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Estate Planning

Estate planning is designed to fulfill the wishes of a person after his or her death. Problems can easily arise, however, if the estate plan contains unanswered questions that can no longer be resolved after the person's demise. This can, and frequently does, lead to costly litigation counter-productive to the goals of the estate. It is important that will be written in language that is clear and that the document has been well proofread because something as simple as a misplaced comma can significantly alter its meaning.

Planning for every possible contingency is a significant part of estate planning. Tragic scenarios in which an estate planner’s loved ones predecease him or her, though uncomfortable, must be considered during the preparation of a will to avoid otherwise unforeseen conflicts. 

Even trained professionals can make significant mistakes if they are not well versed in estate planning. An attorney who practices general law, while perfectly capable of preparing simple wills, may not understand the intricacies of trusts and guardianships. A great many attorneys, not aware of the tax consequences of bequests involving IRAs, may leave heirs with unnecessary financial obligations. If an attorney is not knowledgeable enough to ask the proper questions, he or she will be unable to prepare an estate plan that functions efficiently and ensures the proper distribution of the estate's assets.

In spite of the wealth of an individual, the estate may be cash deficient if that wealth is tied up in assets at the time of the individual's death. Problems can also result if an estate planner has distributed assets into joint bank accounts or accounts with pay on death provisions. If the executor of the estate does not have access to funds to pay the estate's bills or taxes, the heirs of the estate may run into trouble.

Even if estate planning is handled well from a logistical point of view, lack of communication with loved ones can interfere with a will's desired execution. A tragedy that incapacitates the testator can occur suddenly, so it is imperative that a savvy estate planner confers with loved ones as soon as possible, making them aware of any future obligations, such as life insurance premiums that must be paid and informing them of the location of any probate documents and inventories of assets. Such conversations ensure that the individual's wishes will be carried out without complications or delay in the event of an unexpected incapacity.

In addition to communicating logistical information, it is also essential to schedule a personal conversation with loved ones that makes clear any sentimental bequests or large gifts that require explanation. This avoids the shock or discomfort that may arise after one's death during which a well-thought-out decision is questioned as impulsive or irrational. Such direct communication of one's plans avoids unnecessary envy, arguments or rivalry among family and friends.

Consulting with attorneys who specialize in estate planning is the cornerstone of creating a plan to ensure that one's desires are carried out and that all the bases are covered. Estate planning attorneys serve as invaluable repositories of all information necessary to strategizing a plan that not only meets one's personal needs and desires, but is legally binding.


Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Avoid Three Common Pitfalls when Purchasing a Small Business

1.     Buy the assets instead of the business

Purchasing a small business includes assuming any debt accrued by the business. The buyer is also purchasing any potential liability from accidents or misconduct of the seller that occurred prior to the sale. This can be avoided if the new owner purchases the assets instead of buying the entire business. Taking this action also resets the tax basis of those assets to the current purchase price instead of the price the seller paid for them.

It is important to make sure that the assets are being sold unencumbered, meaning that they were not financed since any debts accrued may follow the assets. The assets, such as machinery or furniture, should be inspected and tested to make sure they are in good condition and fully functional. Also, the buyer should consider paying in installments so that if assets turn out to be damaged and require repair or liabilities are discovered down the line, deductions can be made from future payments. Purchasing assets is usually the better option for a small business owner. It is always wise to consult with an attorney to determine your best options.

2.     Examine the lease

Leasing space is one of the most expensive aspects of running a business. Before purchasing, the small business owner should review all potential expenses, paying particularly careful attention to the lease. The purchaser should confer with the landlord to confirm that:

No problems will arise in the lease if a transfer occurs;

No back rent is owed; and

The premises are in good condition.

If the buyer intends to renegotiate the lease, it should be done prior to the purchase. 

3.     Evaluate the landlord

If there are other tenants in the area, the potential buyer should question them in order to assess the landlord's trustworthiness. If other tenants have had problems with the landlord, it is likely that the new owner will have issues as well. If the prospective landlord does not have the reputation of being honest or reliable, it probably does not make sense to go through with the purchase. 

4.     Ensure a smooth transition

Many sellers do their best to hide the fact that the business is being sold from their employees. This can present serious difficulties for the new owner since, in order to continue operations after a purchase, it is crucial that key employees remain on staff to help ease the transition. A potential buyer should always speak with existing employees to confirm their competence and willingness to stay on. These key employees have ongoing experience in running the day-to-day operations of the business and are likely to be aware of problems with running the business that have not been revealed by the seller and are not immediately apparent to newcomers.

At times, the seller stays on to consult with the buyer for months after the sale to ensure a smooth transition. In any event, the buyer should always make sure that the seller signs a non-compete provision to prevent future conflicts.


Monday, November 2, 2015

What is a Life Estate?

A life estate is a special designation in probate law referring to a gift to a family member that lasts as long as the life of the recipient. If an individual uses a life estate as part of his or her estate plan, whatever is bequeathed under the life estate will revert back to the residual estate upon the death of the life estate recipient. It is most common in scenarios where an individual starts a new family without children later in life and wants to ensure that the present spouse is taken care of for the remainder of her or his life. The owner of a life estate is called a life tenant. A life estate is often used as an alternative to a trust because it provides the life tenant with more control over the transferred asset.

A life tenant may treat an asset as his or her own. A home may be rented to tenants for income. The life tenant may sell his or her interest in the property to the heirs of the residual estate or to third parties. If the property is sold to a third party, that third party must surrender the property to the residual heirs upon the death of the life tenant.

Though the property belongs to the life tenant, the life tenant has a duty to the residual heirs to keep the property reasonably maintained and in good condition. He or she has an obligation to avoid mortgage arrearages and tax liens while in possession of the property. Exploiting natural resources on the property may be restricted during a life tenancy. A life tenant may not bequeath his or her interest in a life estate through a will because that interest immediately terminates upon the life tenant’s death. Significant changes to the property need to be agreed upon by all parties.

Though there are benefits, there are also drawbacks to establishing a life estate as part of an estate plan. The action could create estate tax issues for the tenant’s estate. In addition, creditors of the tenant may attach liens on the property, creating complicated legal issues for the heirs of the residual estate.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Would transferring your home to your children help avoid estate taxes?

Before transferring your home to your children, there are several issues that should be considered. Some are tax-related issues and some are none-tax issues that can have grave consequences on your livelihood. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that the current federal estate tax exemption is currently over $5 million and thus it is likely that you may not have an estate tax issue anyway. If you are married you and your spouse can double that exemption to over $10 million. So, make sure the federal estate tax is truly an issue for you before proceeding.

Second, if you gift the home to your kids now they will legally be the owners. If they get sued or divorced, a creditor or an ex- in-law may end up with an interest in the house and could evict you. Also, if a child dies before you, that child’s interest may pass to his or her spouse or child who may want the house sold so they can simply get their money.

Third, if you give the kids the house now, their income tax basis will be the same as yours is (the value at which you purchased it) and thus when the house is later sold they may have to pay a significant capital gains tax on the difference. On the other hand if you pass it to them at death their basis gets stepped-up to the value of the home at your death, which will reduce or eliminate the capital gains tax the children will pay.

Fourth, if you gift the house now you likely will lose some property tax exemptions such as the homestead exemption because that exemption is normally only available for owner-occupied homes.

Fifth, you will still have to report the gift on a gift tax return and the value of the home will reduce your estate tax exemption available at death, though any future appreciation will be removed from your taxable estate. 

Finally, there may be more efficient ways to do this through the use of a special qualified personal residence trust.  Given the multitude of tax and practical issues involved, it would be best to seek the advice of an estate planning attorney before making any transfers of your property.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Five Considerations For Starting a New Business

1.     Deciding on a Business Form

There are various business forms to choose from.  A sole proprietorship is the easiest to set up, manage, and maintain. There is minimal paperwork necessary to set up a sole proprietorship since there is no distinction between the business and the proprietor. Unfortunately, if a sole proprietorship faces a lawsuit, the owner’s personal assets are at stake.

This can be avoided by registering a Limited Liability Company (LLC) with the state. An LLC limits an owner’s liability to the investment in the company, but it requires filing separate taxes every year and can affect the business’s profit margin. Other common ways of organizing a business include corporations, partnerships, and 501c(3) nonprofit organizations. Partnerships, LLC’s, corporations or nonprofits all have advantages and disadvantages.  It is wise to discuss this matter with a qualified business law attorney who can lead you in the right direction when it comes to business form.

2. Deciding on an S Corp or a C Corp

If you decide that a corporation is the right form, it is important to understand the various types of corporations.  S- and C- corporate forms are available.  There are several differences between a C Corp and an S Corp.  The most significant is the way the two are treated for tax purposes. A C-Corp pays taxes on its profits and the principals pay taxes on the money they have received from the company. In an S-Corp, the business files a K-1 form and the profit from the business is included in the individual taxes of the principal. An S-Corp is permitted to shift some of its income from one year to the next. In addition, a C-Corp has more leeway in determining when its fiscal year starts and ends.

3. Securing an entity name and a tax ID number

Securing a tax ID number is a simple process, requiring only the filling out of forms either on the IRS website, by mail, by fax or by touchtone telephone. No fee is necessary for the application. A tax ID number may also referred to as an EIN (Employer Identification Number), is nine digits long.

4. Register with your state  

In order to ensure compliance with rules governing workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, local taxes and access to other government resources, it is important to notify the state in which you operate what you are doing.

5. Obtain necessary licenses and permits

Depending on the type of business you run, different permits may be required to operate.  For example, a restaurant not only requires approval by the board of health, but requires a liquor license in order to be legally permitted to serve alcohol.

A skilled business law attorney can help you decide what is necessary to start your business off on the right foot.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Executors Fees

An executor's fee is the amount charged by the person who has been appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary steps in the probate administration. Therefore, if you have been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you might be entitled to a fee for your services.  This fee could be based upon a variety of factors and some of those factors may be dependent upon state, or even local, law.

General Duties of an Executor

  1. Securing the decedent's home (changing locks, etc.)
  2. Identifying and collecting all bank accounts, investment accounts, stocks, bonds and mutual funds
  3. Having all real estate appraised; having all tangible personal property appraised
  4. Paying all of the decedent’s debts and final expenses
  5. Making sure all income and estate tax returns are prepared, filed and any taxes paid
  6. Collecting all life insurance proceeds and retirement account assets
  7. Accounting for all actions; and making distributions of the estate to the beneficiaries or heirs.

This list is not all-inclusive and depending upon the particular estate more, or less, steps may be needed.

As you can see, there is a lot of work (and legal liability) involved in being the executor of an estate.  Typically the executor would keep track of his or her time and a reasonable hourly rate would be used. Other times, an executor could charge based upon some percent of the value of the estate assets. What an executor may charge, and how an executor can charge, may be governed by state law or even a local court's rules. You also asked whether the deceased can make you agree not to take a fee. The decedent can put in his or her will that the executor should serve without compensation but the named executor is not obligated to take the job. He or she could simply decline to serve. If no one will serve without taking a fee, and if the decedents will states the executor must serve without a fee, a petition could be filed with the court asking them to approve a fee even if the will says otherwise. Notice should be given to all interested parties such as all beneficiaries.

If you have been appointed an executor or have any other probate or estate planning issues, contact us for a consultation today.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Is There Anyway a Disinherited Child Could Receive an Inheritance From an Estate?

If your estate plan and related documents are properly and carefully drafted, it is highly unlikely that the court will disregard your wishes and award the excluded child an inheritance.  As unlikely as it may be, there are certain situations where this child could end up receiving an inheritance depending upon a variety of factors.

To understand how a disinherited child could benefit, you must understand how assets pass after death.  How a particular asset passes at death depends upon the type of asset and how it is titled. For example, a jointly titled asset will pass to the surviving joint owner regardless of what a will or a trust says. So, in the unlikely event that the disinherited child was a joint owner, that child would still inherit the asset because of how it was titled.

Similarly, if you left that disinherited child as a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy or retirement plan asset, such as an IRA or 401k, that child would still receive some of the benefits as the named beneficiary even if your will stated they were to take nothing. Another way such a "disinherited" child might receive a benefit is if all other named beneficiaries died before you.

So, assume you have three children and you wish to disinherit one of them and you state you want all of your assets to go to the other two, and if they are not alive, then to their descendants.  If those other two children die before you and do not have any descendants, there may be a provision that in such a case your "heirs at law" are to take your entire estate and that would include the child you intended to disinherit.

If you wish to disinherit a child, all of these issues can be addressed with proper and careful drafting by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  


Monday, September 21, 2015

Problems with Using Joint Accounts as a Vehicle for Inheritance

When deciding who will inherit your assets after you die, it is important to consider that you might outlive the beneficiary you choose.  If you have added someone to your financial accounts to ensure that he or she receives this asset after you die, you might be concerned about what will happen should you outlive this person.

What happens to a joint asset in this situation depends upon the specific circumstances. For example, if a co-owner that was meant to inherit dies first, the account will automatically become the property of the other co-owners and will not be included in the decedent’s estate.  However, whether it is somehow included in this person’s taxable estate, and is therefore subject to state death tax, also depends on state law. Assuming the other co-owners were the only ones to contribute to this account, and that the decedent did not put any of his or her money into the account, there may be state laws that provide that these funds are not taxed.  The other co-owners might have to sign an affidavit to that effect and submit it to the state department of revenue with the tax return. Also, if the decedent’s estate was large enough to require the filing of a federal estate tax return ($5,340,000 in 2014) the same thing may be needed in order to exclude this money from his or her taxable estate. You would generally state that this person’s name was placed on the account for convenience, and that the money was contributed by the other co-owners.

If you are considering adding someone to your financial accounts so that they inherit it when you die, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your options. 


Monday, September 7, 2015

What would happen if another child is born after establishing an estate plan?

This question presents a fairly common issue posed to estate planning attorneys. The solution is also pretty easy to address in your will, trust and other estate planning documents, including any guardianship appointment for your minor children.

First, its important to note that you should not delay establishing an estate plan pending the birth of a new child.  In fact, if your planning is done right you most likely will not need to modify your estate plan after a new child is born.  The problem with waiting is that you cannot know what tomorrow will bring and you could die, or become incapacitated and not having any type of plan is a bad idea. 

In terms of how an estate plan can provide for “after-born” children, there are a few drafting techniques that can address this issue.  For example, in your will, it would refer to your current children typically by name and their date of birth. Then, your will would provide that any reference to the term "your children" would include any children born to you, or adopted by you, after the date you sign your will.

In addition, in the section or article of your will that provides how your estate and assets will be divided, it could simply provide that your estate and assets will be divided into separate and equal shares, one each for "your children." That would mean that whatever children you have at the time of your death would receive a share and thus the will would work as you intend, even if you did not amend it after having a new child. 

On a side note, you should make certain that your plan does not give the children their share of your estate outright while they are still young.  Rather, your will or living trust should provide that the assets and money are held in a trust structure until they are reach a certain age or achieve certain milestones such as college graduation or marriage. Any good estate planning attorney should be able to advise you about this and help walk you through the various options you have available to you.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Which Business Structure is Right for You?

Which entity is best for your business depends on many factors, and the decision can have a significant impact on both profitability and asset protection afforded to its owners. Below is an overview of the most common business structures.

Sole Proprietorship
The sole proprietorship is the simplest and least regulated of all business structures. For legal and tax purposes, the sole proprietorship’s owner and the business are one and the same. The liabilities of the business are personal to the owner, and the business terminates when the owner dies. On the other hand, all of the profits are also personal to the owner and the sole owner has full control of the business.

General Partnership
A partnership consists of two or more persons who agree to share profits and losses. It is simple to establish and maintain; no formal, written document is required in order to create a partnership. If no formal agreement is signed, the partnership will be subject to state laws governing partnerships. However, to clarify the rights and responsibilities of each partner, and to be certain of the tax status of the partnership, it is important to have a written partnership agreement.

Each partner’s personal assets are at risk. Any partner may obligate the partnership, and each individual partner is liable for all of the debts of the partnership. General partners also face potential personal legal liability for the negligence of another partner.

Limited Partnership
A limited partnership is similar to a general partnership, but has two types of partners: general partners and limited partners. General partners have broad powers to obligate the partnership (as in a general partnership), and are personally liable for the debts of the partnership. If there is more than one general partner, each of them is liable for the acts of the remaining general partners. Limited partners, however, are “limited” to their contribution of capital to the business, and must not become actively involved in running the company. As with a general partnership, limited partnerships are flow-through tax entities.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)
The LLC is a hybrid type of business structure. An LLC consists of one or more owners (“members”) who actively manage the company’s business affairs. The LLC contains elements of both a traditional partnership and a corporation, offering the liability protection of a corporation, with the tax structure of a sole proprietorship (if it has only one member), or a partnership (if the LLC has two or more members). Its important to note that in certain states, single-member LLCs are not afforded limited liability protection.

Corporation
Corporations are more complex than either a sole proprietorship or partnership and are subject to more state regulations regarding their formation and operation. There are two basic types of corporations:  C-corporations and S-corporations. There are significant differences in the tax treatment of these two types of corporations, however, they are both generally organized and operated in a similar manner.

Technical formalities must be strictly observed in order to reap the benefits of corporate existence. For this reason, there is an additional burden of detailed recordkeeping. Corporate decisions must be documented in writing. Corporate meetings, both at the shareholder and director levels, must be formally documented.

Corporations limit the owners’ personal liability for company debts. Depending on your situation, there may be significant tax advantages to incorporating.


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